An interview with Jean-Marc Dewaele, expert in raising multilingual children. The Multilingual Lives interviews are a way to understand how we meander through different languages and cultures in our daily lives as multilinguals and multiculturals. This interview first appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
What are your languages?
Jean-Marc Dewaele: French is the first language I came in contact with, as it was the language my parents used at home in Bruges (Flanders, Belgium). Living in a Dutch-speaking environment meant that my sister, my brother and I grew up bilingual. We went to Flemish state schools and all our friends were native speakers of Dutch, or the local dialect – which I don’t speak well. When we went to France on holiday, we felt that our French was somewhat stunted. My parents did not use “argot” with us (most social classes in France use this vernacular) and we felt very “uncool” when speaking to peers. We did pick up some of it, but we never became really fluent.
I had an incomplete English immersion between the age of 1 and 2 when my father became a Fulbright exchange teacher, and we lived in Connecticut from 1963 to 1964. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have picked up much and so I started learning English as a true beginner, at school, at the age of 13. When I started doing my PhD, I struggled with academic writing in English, and funnily enough English has now become my dominant written language. Having lived and worked in London for 13 years has not erased my French accent in English, though. Luckily, it is an accent that the British find quite cute, so I don’t worry about it. I learned Spanish at university, aged 18, and during great summer camps in Salamanca and Malaga. I understand it well, but I don’t use it enough to be fluent in it. I can understand German and Italian pretty well if it’s not too fast and if it’s a standard variety.
What language do you use in your family (with your child and wife)?
Jean-Marc: I use Dutch, French and English with my wife (in decreasing order) and French (and occasionally English) with my daughter. In fact, we’re a trilingual codeswitching family.
In what language did you receive your schooling?
What languages do you commonly read in for work?
Jean-Marc: English, French, sometimes Spanish.
What languages do you commonly read in for pleasure (can you name some titles of your favorite books, poems, etc.)?
Jean-Marc: English, French and Dutch. I prefer poetry in French, and Paul Eluard is my favorite poet. I used to love science fiction books by LeGuin, Asimov, Herbert, Orson Scott Card. I still love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gombrowicz’ Cosmos, the short stories by Borges, all the books by Auster (In the Country of Last Things, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, New York Trilogy), most books of Murakami (especially Norwegian Wood), Zafon’s masterpiece La sombra del viento, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Palliser’s Quincunx, detective stories by Dibdin and the brilliant French author Fred Vargas, (L’homme à l’envers, Sous les vents de Neptune).
What languages do you commonly watch movies? (what are some of your favorite movies?)
Jean-Marc: Any language that I can understand. And as a Belgian I’m used to reading subtitles and enjoying the melody of an unknown language.
I’ve got four favorite directors: Pedro Almodovar, I adored Mujeres al borde del ataque de nervios, Volver; Krzysztof Kieślowski (La double vie de Véronique, Trois couleurs: bleu); David Lynch (Wild at heart, Mulholland Drive) and Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Code inconnu). I loved Delicatessen by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. I also greatly enjoyed the series Twin Peaks and West Wing.
What language do you dream in?
Jean-Marc: A lot in English, but also French and Dutch.
When you get angry, what language comes to you first?
Jean-Marc: I can get angry in the three languages. But I avoid getting angry because it is usually counterproductive and bad for stress. Also, as a karate-ka I have learned that the highest aim is the avoidance of confrontation.
What is the language you prefer to use to make a declaration of love?
Jean-Marc: French or Dutch.
In which language do you prefer to debate over a controversial issue?
Jean-Marc: I’d be happy to debate in my three languages.
In what language do you prefer to write, and why?
Jean-Marc: I would prefer to write poetry in French and I prefer English for academic publications.
Do you like to mix languages or do you like to keep them strictly separate?
Jean-Marc: I love mixing them if my interlocutor can follow them.
Did you ever rebel against a language/ decide not to speak a language, and if so, why?
Jean-Marc: When I lived in Brussels I identified with the Flemish minority, and therefore I always started in Dutch to embarrass my monolingual French interlocutor. When the person was suitably embarrassed I would switch to French, pointing out that it is important to know Dutch in Brussels. I’ve stopped playing that game in Brussels since living in London. I’ve become a bit of an outsider, and no longer feel the need to stand on linguistic barricades. On the contrary, in the current situation I feel more linguistic tolerance is needed in Belgium, in order to save the country from disintegration.
Do you think you are different when you speak a certain language/ does it affect your personality?
Jean-Marc: I’ve got a PhD student, Rosemary Wilson, who is finishing her research on this, and Aneta Pavlenko also wrote an excellent chapter on this topic. It turns out that most multilinguals do feel different when switching languages, and that it may be linked to their personality profile. Switching languages can allow an escape for linguistic and cultural constraints. I do not feel any different when switching languages, except maybe when I yell in Japanese during karate classes: because then I’m in a fighting mood! So my very limited Japanese is a purely martial language.