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 has initially been written in Italian by the impressive plume of Alessia, our native Italian writer. It was then beautiful trans-created by Eugen R. our native English translator, and carefully proofed and polished by Eugenia P., our native English Editor until it shined like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager Katerina. Learn more about our Italian to English services here.