The multilingual mind

Alessia is a researcher in the field of learning multiple languages, from Italy, multilingual herself, married to a Flemish Belgian and living in France with her two multilingual kids. She invites us into her home to hear the sounds of the many different languages that ring through it every day. She smiles at the joys and challenges of having a house filled with the harmony of different voices, and offers us deeper insight into the passage from a monolingual to a multilingual way of thinking.

Being a multilingual family—is it a handful?

I’d say so.

Picture a regular evening. We’re having our neighbors (100% French, homegrown and purebred) over for dinner. Their little boy, Cèdric, is playing with our kids in the living room.

At the table, we adults talk in French. And so do our kids in the living room, with their loud voices, jumping up and down on the sofas. So I say to my oldest, who is three and a half: ‘Non gridate troppo, per favore!’ (‘Don’t scream so much, please!’). He answers: ‘No, mamma!’ and laughs. Then, my husband takes a turn at it: ‘Luist aan mama alsjeblieft! Moet ge een beetje rustig zijn’ (‘Listen to your mom, please! You should be a little quieter’). My son just laughs, and now he’s running around with his little brother and their little friend. I look at my husband and tell him, in English: ‘Let them play; who cares? We don’t live in a building, huh?’. And we go back to our French conversation with our French neighbors.

The phone rings—it’s a Spanish friend. I answer her: ‘¡Hola tía! ¿Qué tal?’ (‘Hey girl! What’s up?’). She tells me that tomorrow she’s going to the park with her kids, and asks me if I want to come. ‘Si, bueno, podría ser. Si los niños no duermen demasiado por la tarde, vamos a ir, ¿vale? Te llamaré. ¡Hasta mañana!’ (‘Yeah, good, maybe. If the kids don’t sleep too much in the afternoon, we’ll go, ok? I’ll call you. See you tomorrow!’). A little while later, a friend of my husband’s rings at the door, a German from Switzerland who is dropping off some skis he’d borrowed from us. ‘Bonsoir!’ he says to everybody. Then he turns to my husband: ‘Hoi! Merci viel mal, es war mega gail!’ (‘Hey, thanks a million; it was awesome!’).

See? Nothing special, just an evening like any other for us, the multilingual family. But then, the neighbors start with their questions and comments (in French, obviously): ‘Oh, it’s so good that your sons speak so many languages!’, ‘They’re so fortunate!’, ‘And you? How many do you speak?’, ‘Oh, so many!’, ‘And how did you learn them?’, ‘Travelling must come so easy for you!’.

We don’t mind all the remarks, compliments, commonplaces, all sometimes betraying a touch of envy. But often, I wonder: when they go back home to their monolingual world, what do they really think about us? What would they really like to ask, but politeness or shyness won’t let them?

And that’s not all—we’re actually also talking about me, the ex-monolingual of only a little more than 15 years ago. After all, it’s comfortable to stay within the four walls of your own language and your own homeland, in the safety of a world where you’re cushioned by the fact that you understand everything all the time, where it’s a rare thing to be judged for how you talk or express yourself, and where dialects give an echo of the beauty of a different way of speaking, but within the confines of a comprehensibility that is always within reach.

I think one becomes multilingual at the point when one starts to uproot oneself from this way of seeing the world through a single lens, when one starts seeing it from different angles, when one becomes open to more and more people and more and more different ways to live.

Learning a language is both a comic and tragic affair, particularly when you’re an adult. We ex-monolinguals are well familiar with that overwhelming empty feeling of not understanding anything in social situations, that embarrassment of not being able to laugh when others laugh, and that feeling of anxiety you get on the seemingly unending road to learning a new language. But then we finally make it, and we get the ease of being able to understand (almost) everything, and the satisfaction of being able to express ourselves in (almost) all situations, while holding on to the humble attitude that helped us get to this point. Because, as everyone knows, when you’re multilingual, it always happens that there’s a word that just doesn’t come to you, that’s just outside your grasp. The road to learning isn’t one you ever leave.

And I also asked myself a thousand questions before I got to where I am today. When I was dating my future husband at university, and we spoke in English (or mostly Italglish, in my case) as neither of us understood the mother tongue of the other, I used to think to myself: ‘But what am I doing with my terrible English? How can he truly understand me? How can he get to understand the nuances of my thoughts, which I can only express in my mother tongue?’

Thinking of the monolingual mind I had back then and the multilingual one I have today, I can say I’ve grown in many ways. It’s not only my ability to jump from one language to another at the drop of a hat. It’s the beauty of having a conversation in Spanish over lunch and then going to study in English, while I still think in French because I had dinner with some local friends the previous night. It’s the spontaneous gesture of writing an SMS in German while talking to your kid in Italian and watching a movie in the Queen’s purest English.

What changed the most for me, as I became multilingual, was the awareness that communication isn’t about using exactly the right word at the right time, and it’s also definitely not about saying something just like I would have said it 20 years ago. Speaking several languages has taught me more than just new words and new grammar. Much more importantly, it has taught me that the nuances of thoughts also change with the language you happen to be speaking, that learning is a process that never ends, and that you only truly get to know someone when you speak their mother tongue.

To speak a foreign language is to try to use everything you know to express what you want to say. We’re no longer focused on how to say one particular thing, but on what we want to say, on how to get the message across.

And my home is, indeed, a little world in itself—and a handful. Mistakes, mix-ups and ‘borrowings’ are du jour. But it’s a sort of chaos in which we find ourselves at ease, in which languages intertwine, and new worlds are constructed and deconstructed, made and unmade every single day.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Alessia, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

When you’re face to face with a whale shark, does anything still matter?

There are many ways to leap into the unknown: quitting your job, facing an empty piece of paper with a pen, starting a long journey without a precise plan. In this vibrant tale, Eddie tell us about his own leap, trying to put into words a life-changing experience with a whale shark in the Philippines—an experience that left him speechless.

I should try to stay away from those viral videos going around on Facebook—those that keep reminding me that life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Because of them, I gave up the comfort of a steady job for the uncertainty of a nomad’s life. Because of them, I changed careers three times to follow my true desires—including all that came with a full-fledged mid-life crisis. Because of them, I spend more money than I have, because ‘a chance not taken is an opportunity missed.’ But I don’t regret it for a second.

The balance of my bank account never ventures far from zero, like a deep-sea diver clinging to his lifeline, but I still have no regrets. Because sometimes these experiences are truly worth living. Yes, there were times when I was disappointed—fortunately, just a few. But most were experiences of the kind that truly matters, so strong that they stay in your mind, stubborn, unfading, like you just lived them a moment ago. And it’s not like I’m one of the bravest souls around. But, as I’ve heard those viral videos say, you need to be strong to get the strength (a paradox worth reflecting on) to try something new, to jump out into the void. Sometimes literally.

I’m willing to admit I left ‘jump out into the void’ for last on my bucket list. Someone like me who suffers from vertigo would need a really strong push for that one. So, instead of climbing to the top of the world to find a little bit of the meaning this life can have, I decided to plumb the fathomless depths of the Philippines (I might be exaggerating, just a little), in search of that great beast: the whale shark. Just in case the words ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ together aren’t enough to make an impression, I should remind you this is the largest creature that inhabits the waters of this planet. So I drew up my courage from everywhere I could, even from my travelling companion—as ‘unity is strength’ after all, which I’m pretty sure is a real piece of wisdom, even though I haven’t seen any viral videos about it).

Unfortunately, my companion had somehow managed to come down with an intestinal virus, which kept him in bed for nearly a week. No whales for him, and no sharks either. But I’ve got a mantra that always helps: I repeat in my head, over and over, that if everyone can do it and it’s perfectly legal, it’s probably not going to kill me today. And it didn’t. But the experience had something else about it. Something truly ‘beyond’.

It all started with our group—myself and four sturdy Norwegians, who made me feel safer, as they looked much more up to the task ahead than my own skin and bones—sitting in an office, watching an informational video that explained how you should behave to avoid problems and minimize your impact on the natural environment. Then we were led out to the ship, and we set off in search of the whale shark. Here would be a good place to mention that I’m never quite at ease with the sea. I like it fine, and I enjoy swimming, on one condition: that I can see clearly all around me. The darker the water gets, the more nervous I get. And, if you were wondering, whale sharks can’t be found near the shore—you need to go out far from the coast. So the water was now a deep, dark blue, and I could hear the strong wind howling from the stern, the chitchat of the Norwegians, the shouts of the Filipino sailors watching the waters for the ‘black shadow’, as they called it, that signaled the presence of the Leviathan.

There was chaos on that boat, and so much noise, and the long wait only added to the tension, the anxiety mixed with disappointment mixed with a little hope that we would end up returning to shore without having encountered the watery giant. Until suddenly, the captain told us to put on our fins, masks and snorkels, go to the side of the boat and wait for his command. That moment when your heart starts beating like a hammer—the confusion all around, that final thought of ’what am I doing?’, and the shouted order to throw yourself in the sea—just to be surrounded one second later by that most absolute silence, that human beings search for in vain but can only find in the deep. Then, after the water takes me in, I open my eyes—and I am face to face with an enormous being, all white (that’s how my eyes saw it), peaceful, slow, watching me lazily—maybe bored, maybe annoyed that again some clumsy little being had fallen from the sky right in front of him.

It lasted all of ten seconds, in which I felt small, insignificant; fortunate, yet weak. Ten seconds in which nothing mattered but what separated me from the whale shark, and the faint lingering thoughts—would I survive? Would I be touched by the harmless colossus? (And they are, in fact, harmless—they eat plankton, and their enormous mouths have no teeth). Ten seconds when nothing else exists in the world, when you can’t help being thrust head-on into mindfulness—that awareness of being, of existing in that very moment, not knowing for how long, enjoying the tiniest instant as a generous gift.

Ten seconds that ended, as we tried in vain to keep up with our white whale, and had to get back on the boat—but then we went and did it all over again, and again, a few times more. Finally, as we returned to shore, we were joyous, having done an extraordinary feat, something above the mere human condition. Or maybe below—hadn’t we felt so insignificant? No one spoke much on the return trip. We didn’t even look at the photos we had taken with all our state-of-the-art underwater gadgets. We sat in silence, relishing every lingering moment of the encounter that had, just for an instant, shifted our sense of place in the world and given us a glimpse of our true measure—tiny, but somehow also great, courageous and curious, all in one.

Maybe it was all the fault of those viral videos. Or maybe it was that never-ending striving, that will to overcome born into us as human beings. Whatever it was, I know this experience made me feel in touch with the world, with the Universe itself, like never before. And thanks to this contact, this realization, this change, I grew a little as a human being.

What do you do after something like that? You get back on the boat, and throw yourself in again. Replay.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Edmondo Pezzopane, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

¡Que viva México! – May Mexico live on forever!

Is it true that each culture can be a treasure trove for all humanity? Giuliana confirms this hypothesis for us by recounting stories from her childhood summer vacations in Mexico, which marked her for life, giving her a taste for lively colors, a passion for traditional markets and a particular way of thinking about death.

My recollections of Mexico are burned into the innermost sanctum of my memory. They are intertwined with the extraordinary experiences from my childhood, the discovery of the most vivid and colorful of life’s hues, those times that would forever alter the way I imagined the exotic and the way I appreciated beauty and color, and that would create in me the ever-present need to come into direct contact with the most authentic humanity and the most luxuriant nature.

Nearly every summer from 1989 to 1999, my brother and I had the good fortune to be able to travel from Italy to the birthplace of our mother, accompanied by her and several other family members from our ‘Californian diaspora’. After crossing the US border from San Diego, on the Pacific coast, to Tijuana, we would fly to Mexico’s capital on an Aeromexico plane, the country’s flagship airline.

The moment of landing in Mexico City brought with it a liberating, almost spiritual enthusiasm. I could see my mother’s overflowing emotions each time she returned to her homeland, and I was also somehow conscious of being reunited with something that was an essential part of my own life as well, a parallel dimension that had little in common with the Italian one of my regular life.

The capital of Mexico appeared to my eyes as a place of magic and madness, marked by harrowing contradictions and a primordial energy of constant renewal. It was a universe of daily and spontaneous discoveries, engaging my imagination to the fullest, and giving me the most intense impressions through its novel and unending delights for the senses.

It was in Mexico that I discovered the flavor of tropical fruit for the first time—I still remember the day when I gorged myself on so many mangoes that I got a terrible indigestion. It was there that I discovered the fearsome powers of true Mexican chili. It was there that I first held in my hands a magnificent hummingbird, and it was there that I got struck again and again by the merciless ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, elsewhere commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea. But more than anything, it was there that I came face to face with the biggest fear there is—the fear of death, which came to me in the form of one of its ubiquitous popular representations, which would disturb my innocent dreams for some time.

It was in one of the flea markets, called tianguis (an old Nahuatl word, from long before the Spaniards came), that I first ran into the so-called Cajitas de muertos (‘Little boxes of the dead’), small handcrafted dioramas with the theme of death. The sight of these little ‘shrines’ made me uncomfortable right from the start, raising existential questions that, at my age, could no longer be ignored. I didn’t understand what was the point of such macabre representations, or how my mother and her sisters could like these things so much—these skeletons, these skulls, made of plaster, sugar or paper—and even find them funny! They didn’t make me want to laugh at all. Instead, they stirred up in me a fear and an aversion that I just couldn’t control.

Yet, as I spent more time immersed in this strange world, and came into contact with its values in the most intimate way, I finally developed the awareness I needed in order to overcome my childish reaction. I learned to appreciate to the fullest this part of Mexican culture, which connects death with laughter in a way we wouldn’t even think possible, and manages to collectively exorcise one of the biggest taboos of humanity, particularly in the Western world.

I also learned to love the vibrant street markets, not just in the capital, but also those in the small light-filled pueblitos that we visited during our stays in the lush Valle de Bravo, near Lake Avándaro, where my grandfather owned a summer house, a few hours away from the big city.

I would wander among the stalls, searching for precious objects that could encapsulate my Mexican experience as a whole, channel my affection into solid material form: colorful beaded necklaces with figures of animals and children, small wicker creations, silver rings with Aztec symbols, such as the famous Piedra del Sol, that I had seen in the museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec, and so many others. I needed the reality of those little objects, both to give expression to my love for this land and to remind myself of its existence after returning home to Italy. I needed them as irrefutable proof that this world was real, and not just a figment of the wild imagination of a child.

But as the new millennium dawned, my mother became more and more reluctant to take the usual summer trip to her Mexican homeland, as the growing perception of the danger of being in that country was brought up again and again. It finally turned into a taboo, a forced expulsion of a kind, which my brother and I tried to resist. Unlike him, I finally yielded.

With time and distance, my second country became a kind of ‘Mexico of the mind’, an ‘imaginary homeland’, like India for Salman Rushdie, and its memory fed my bittersweet nostalgia for something elusive, a past that had been lived, but was also idealized—a world which, inevitably, could never be the same.

The severing of my physical connection with Mexico went on to feed the flame of my search for belonging—to an imaginary place that I projected countless times onto different real ones, to make up for the loss of the relationship with that source of life, that visceral and irresistible attraction for the senses. I became convinced, again and again, that I could find my Mexico in the colorful bazaars of the Balkans and Turkey, in the coruscating traditional costumes of Bulgaria, in the near-psychedelic brightness of the patterns of the artisan fabrics of the Caucasus, in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in others too many to recount.

I kept alive my own forms of nostalgic remembrance, with a series of daily rituals encompassing my memories of that lost paradise. Today, I still wear my bead necklaces, my silver bracelets and rings from Valle di Bravo, the earrings I got in a tianguis, and the scarf my brother bought in Chiapas.

And, 18 years after I bought the last of them in Mexico City, I still keep my cajitas de muertos with me—the laughing skeletons whose mocking grins no longer make me afraid.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

Multilingualism as homeland

Mariano, our Italian translator, is an expat living in France. He contemplates love and death while crossing the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, in all the languages that live inside him.

My grandmother passed away only a few days after Christmas. Some days before her passing, I had flown from Paris, where I live, to Milan, where my girlfriend lives, and from there I had taken a train to Piacenza, where my family lives. From Piacenza, at dawn on Christmas Day, we—myself and my family—drove together to Naples, where I was born and where my grandmother still lived.

Once upon a time, I had lived at my grandmother’s house for a short while. The school I went to was a stone’s throw away from her place, and every morning she would tell me to eat my mottino. (A few years later, I found out that the word mottino doesn’t actually exist in Italian, and my classmates in the North had no idea what it meant). When I got back home from school, we would have the colezione—and there were two things I simply couldn’t understand: for one, why my grandmother called it colazione (with that strange a pronounced more like an e), which means breakfast, instead of pranzo—lunch. And for another: why she would fool me every time by telling me she had made maccheroni, only to serve me regular spaghetti. At the end of every evening, she would tell me to go coricare—another word that sounded strange to me, used in the place of dormire, ‘to sleep’, as my parents would have said. And now, after I kissed her forehead and said goodbye to her for the last time at the hospital’s morgue (the same word in so many languages), I am again leaving Naples behind, and the bilingualism of my childhood (but I really should say tri-lingualism: Neapolitan, Italian, and that peculiar Italian spoken only in my family, sprinkled with words that existed neither in proper Italian nor in Neapolitan), to return to the multilingualism which has been my home for years now.

Back in France after those sad days in Italy, I again find myself caught in the linguistic maelstrom of my everyday life: the Neapolitan that still rings in my head after the time in Naples, the Italian in which I think, the French which I speak, the English which I read and write almost every day, the Spanish of my Parisian friends (and Catalan for some). Multilingualism as homeland, translation as natural a gesture as breathing. My mind drifts again—I don’t know why—to that ‘coricare’ that my grandmother would say, burned forever in my memory—and I suddenly realize it’s nothing but a literal translation of the Neapolitan word cuccà (‘to go to bed’), like Renato Carosone sang: ‘Mo’ vene Natale, nun tengo denare, me leggio ‘o giurnale e me vado a cuccà’ (‘Christmas is coming, I’ve got no money, I read the paper and I go straight to bed’—to stay with the Christmas theme). ‘To go to bed’ in French is coucher, which is very similar, as it comes from exactly the same root.

But coucher also means ‘to go to bed’ with someone else. ’Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’—that’s an expression even someone who doesn’t speak a lick of French would know, and it certainly isn’t an invitation to get some shut-eye. French is full of these euphemisms, these ‘false friends’ that the Italian émigré, fresh off the boat (as the expression goes), needs to learn—or at least to deliberately pretend not to know, if they can hope to gain some advantage from it. The French seem to have so much trouble locating the body parts properly: the soutien-gorge has nothing to do with the throat (la gorge), but, of course, with the breasts. If they tell you ferme ta gueule, they don’t mean ‘close your throat’ so you’d suffocate, but rather ‘shut your mouth’ so you’d stop talking. And when you feel like throwing up, they let you know that you actually have mal au coeur (‘sickness in the heart’), or that you’re having a crise de foie (‘attack of the liver’).

But you have to pay even more attention with the language of affection and love. The meaning of every word is transformed: embrasser means ‘to embrace’, but also ‘to kiss’; baiser, in turn, means ‘to kiss’, but also to do something much more intimate, known to the rest of the world as ‘making love’: fare l’amore, hacer el amor, faire l’amour. When I was a little boy in Naples, I often heard people talking about fà ammore. For instance, I remember that they were saying that a young uncle of mine had been doing this (faciva ammore) for many years—too many! But this was not actually intended to mean that he was engaging in way too much of a certain amorous activity, but that he and his fiancée had been postponing their wedding for too long. I would also get asked questions about whether I had started to fà ammore yet. This was all because in Naples, fà ammore just means to court, to be together, to spend time with each other. When I was 12 or 13, that question used to make me embarrassed, but today I would certainly have no problem answering it.

I think about these linguistic crossroads, these twists and turns, as I am walking alone on the Pont de l’Alma on my way to work. The Seine flows by my side, engorged by the recent rains. The Eiffel Tower rises before me, further to the right. My path, and the train of my thoughts, have brought me from childhood memories to the questions of a human life, and from death to love: love as it’s tried, love as it’s made, love as it’s talked about. Just like Simon and Garfunkel in Kathy’s Song, I too, when the rain falls, think of the faraway place ‘where my heart lies’. But in which language is that thought? I’m not all so sure anymore.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Mariano D’Ambrosio, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.