The identical cameleon

chameleo_parsoniiNow that I have started to acquire some degree of mastership in several languages, I am beginning to wonder about the side-effects of being a polyglot. Googling the term “polyglot” I came to the wikipedia page dedicated to multilingualism. According to some studies, there is a difference being made between “compound bilinguals” and “coordinate bilinguals”. The difference is that the first group understand the two words in two different languages designating the same thing as referring to the same concept or thing, while the second group would associate these two words with two different concepts. In the second group, people will tend to express two different personalities in these two languages. However, this is an ideal-type and bilinguals are a bit of both. I would certainly be in the middle, with a tendency to being a “coordinate bilingual”. I find the distinction rather strange and unclear. According to this distinction, only the first group is a group of fluent speakers in both languages. I wonder if the classification is not made by monolingual people. It seems to me that the first group is very likely not to be bilingual. To take the example given, a “chien” and a “dog” are the same for them. But this is non-sense. Sure a dog is a dog is a dog. But there are so many different cultural references associated to the dog in each language, that it just does not make sense to associate the two words with the same thing, when they have two different lexical fields associated with them. “Dog!” is not a very strong insult in English, whereas “Chien !” is definitely a powerful expression of disgust towards a person’s behaviour in French. Furthermore, the British tradition for pets would also certainly add different dimensions to what is associated with the word “dog” than in French. And, finally but not exhaustively, I could think of one’s own personal experience in England or France related to dogs, and appreciation of the treatment given to dogs in each culture.

I was not particularly good at school in languages, but I realise now that it may have been because languages are taught in school in one’s mother tongue, and people are forced to be “compound bilinguals”. I am now much better at learning languages, because I am learning on my own, and with my own method. I try to learn a language as a native would, and embrace the whole culture that comes with it, rather than trying to think in my referring mother tongue and translate systematically with the idea that all the words designing concepts in my “own” language have a translation.

Doing so, I have come to develop different personalities, and undermine or loose the original one. I grew up in France, and sometimes I do not even know how to express myself in French any longer. I left France and kept a literary connection with French. Coming back to France, it seems to me that no one speaks French correctly, and that French is and should only be a written language, since it is so demanding. I have for instance a hard time being funny in French, unless I have to write. On the contrary, English seems to be the language of humour. Perhaps, the reason is that I enjoy all the American situation comedies, and the satirical shows, as well as the English ones.

In Danish, I am still wondering how to be. It is still difficult finding the Danish me.

Of course, learning languages this way is much more fastidious, but I think it is the only way to truly learn them. One could say that I am monolingual in several languages, with more or less vocabulary. I enjoy particularly the way a language sounds, and learning how to pronounce correctly. It demands a lot of effort and concentration however, and often it is easier to start from reading out loud a text, than actually uttering a thought, as it drives the attention away from the sheer pronunciation. The shift from one language to the other is not easy however. It requires a few minutes of adaptation, and sometimes I may even sound foreign in my own mother tongue.

There is a new wave of cosmopolitan writers writing in a foreign language, or mixing foreign languages with their native language, or again re-inventing their native language with forms of expressions and thinking that are foreign. There is surely a lot to develop for a cosmopolitan literary theory.

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About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
This entry was posted in Cosmopolitan experiences, Cosmopolite. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The identical cameleon

  1. Søren E says:

    Hey Frank

    “It is still difficult finding the Danish me”.

    Me too.

    Perhaps two things are the causes of our troubles here:

    1. Personal identity is made, not found.
    2. We are never quite finished making it.

    See you :O)

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