Multilingualism and Writing (Part I)

As, no doubt, it is the case for many who have chosen a career path similar to the one I have, from time to time I am asked the same question: “What language do you think in?”

In response, I often mumble something inarticulate about the relativity of the situations. Then I watch the interlocutor nod in understanding (while his eyes are shouting “What the heck is this guy talking about!!!”) and carry on with my day.

Sure, sometimes (more as a desire to impress than to explain) I get this annoying urge to show off by delving into structuralism and Wittgensteinian language games – undoubtedly fascinating topics, both to impress someone and to bore him to death. But then I tell myself that I should be magnanimous. After all, all the poor fellow did was ask me about the language I usually use when I say to myself things like “I have to remember to buy toilet paper!” or “Why the hell traffic lights are colored when there are so many color-blind people in the world and it would be way more practical to use bright signs, like squares or triangles, instead of denying a huge chunk of the population the right to get a driving license?” And what is my reaction to this? I’m playing with the thought of looking like a huge smart-ass who’s trying to clumsily mansplain to someone stuff that, let’s face it, he himself has a tenuous grasp on.

The question remains, though, lingering somewhere in the back of my mind and nagging me constantly for an answer. And it is not meant to satisfy others, who probably ask it merely to make small talk or, at most, out of whimsical curiosity. No. It is a question I have for myself. Why? Because I feel the need to rationalize and understand something that I perceive on an instinctive level, but struggle to express in a concrete manner. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt to be able to give a more or less articulate answer the next time around.

So, with your permission, dear reader, let me give it a try.

To put the whole thing into context, while at the same time avoiding recounting my entire life here (because, let’s be honest, it’s of no use to anyone and, besides, I’m too lazy to undertake such an ordeal), I must reveal that I speak several languages (duh!), 7 to be precise, 4 of which at a mother tongue level.

Anticipating those “wow!” and “that’s so cool!” that by their intonation betray way more politeness and affability than sincerity, I feel obliged to state upfront and without the slightest shred of modesty that my personal merit in the process of assimilating all these languages is minimal. I am not a genius who picks up language after language on the fly without breaking a sweat, just as I am not a bookworm who spends days and nights memorizing dictionaries from A to Z (is this even a thing?).

I happen to be a very normal person who in the course of his short but eventful existence on this planet has found himself in contact with a good deal of distinct social groups speaking distinct languages. And as a rule, in order to be bothered to raise as much as an eyebrow, distinct members of said distinct social groups speaking distinct languages have this peculiar habit of requiring that all minorities around them (that’s usually me) take the trouble to learn their language (which I usually do).

Reading, possibly and probably, is the only thing that helps me further expand, structure, internalize and succeed in manipulating all this linguistic baggage – skillfully enough to make someone think I’m indigenous where I am not or to capture your attention, dear reader, and make you realize that in this very moment you are perusing the ninth paragraph of this rant of mine, while TikTok waits there patiently with all of its casual, easy-to-consume content, so much so in fact that you never run the risk of ending up with wrinkles between your eyebrows similar to those you risk getting as you struggle with the daunting task of actually finishing this never-ending sentence. Yes, reading. I am an avid reader; one of those who always tries, if possible, to read a book in its original language.

But let’s get back to the rant…

Learning the first three languages was fairly seamless: I was born into a minority community (Ukrainians) residing within one of those “sister republics” (Moldova) ideologically similar but ethnically distinct from the boundless empire (the Soviet Union) of which they were proud members. What is more, I was born at a time when this particular sister republic was just a few years away from the “cataclysmic” moment (to quote a certain someone who cannot be named) of breaking away from the boundless empire and, therefore, on the way of acquiring its own territorial, political and, to return to our topic, linguistic identity.

In other words, even before I knew what the word “dictionary” means, I was nonchalantly speaking three distinct languages, to which, if one wants to be thorough and is not afraid to open up a whole academically and ideologically heated (if not violent) debate, one may very well add a fourth language, namely the Moldovan – an insignificant dialect for some; a proud idiom, capable of taking care of itself and even of bullying those around it (a hearty hello to the Gagauz people!) for others.

Now, would there be a language that, as a child, I considered more “mine” than the others? Yes. Which one? Ukrainian. Why? It was the one I spoke at home and, probably (sorry for the uncertainty, it’s been a while), the one in which I used to think.

A myriad of mind-boggling adventures later, the language I spoke at home had changed. Still a couple million larger than life adventures later, the new language I spoke at home had been flanked by another one. As a result, from that point on, a total of (Warning: What follows is a mathematical operation of unheard-of complexity!) two languages were spoken at home. At the same time, to make things easier (n’est-ce pas?) the language I spoke in school also changed.

Bref, around the time I finally acquired the right to sip a cold beer on the terrace of a bar without having to look over my shoulder for fear that someone might want to see my ID and then dutifully report my suicidal stunt to the appropriate authorities (i.e. my mom), here’s how things stood: at home we spoke Moldovan and Italian. In school, just a few months earlier, Italian had replaced Romanian. However, since said replacement had happened abruptly and rather traumatically (integration’s always a bitch), for a while I would have had to make use of an additional idiom – English, just so that others could understand me without resorting to the sign language (no, not the real sign language, the primitive one).

And where does English come from you ask? Excellent question! English, my dear reader, had been assiduously assimilated during the previous couple of years, but not out of strategic anticipation of the demands dictated by globalization (I doubt I even knew the term at the time) or due to some extraordinary skills exhibited by my school teachers (in reality, these were for the most part spectacularly poor). No, no, no. All I cared about was being able to watch American movies and TV shows on Romanian channels. Apparently due to lack of funding or for some other reason I ignore and do not care enough to do a Google search on, such movies and shows were not dubbed but only subtitled. I had quite literally learned first to say “I’ll be back” than the alphabet and had done so without being bored, without looking hopefully through the window as other kids played soccer outside, without frustratingly throwing books against walls, which I must confess, I did from time to time with subjects other than English (that’s right, I still remember you Luceafărul!).

Now, to commence this new and final (I promise!) paragraph dedicated to my linguistic biography, it would be best to just skip a decade.

The year is 20something. Smartphones are as slim as they are expensive, the 158th Marvel movie just hit the theaters (though still no sign of Avatar II), seeing an electric car sliding silently through city streets no longer deserves that half-second of unconditional attention. Meanwhile, I am an adult now, I occasionally find myself in front of the mirror plucking gray hair from my head, nightclubs give me migraines, and the reason I dread the dentist is no longer the pain but the bill. I have a steady job and an obsessive feeling that my life has come to a standstill and all that awaits me is the deadly boredom that is bound to blossom into old age and death. I therefore decide to resume my studies. This time around, for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, I plan to do it in France.

I know it’s a drag; however, please do this last mental exercise, dear reader, and add one more word to the list of languages I have been speaking in school: French. And, while we’re at it, please do another one and remember that for some time now, Russian had been the language I spoke at home. Why? And why not? Sono cose della vita (to quote a certain someone who can but won’t be named).

Ok, now I’m pretty sure you’re contextually equipped and ready to hear the answer.

(To be continued…)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *