Multilingual Lives Interview with Prof. Aneta Pavlenko

by Corey · 3 comments

A delightful conversation between Prof. Aneta Pavelenko and me (Corey Heller) was the inspiration for this line of Multilingual Lives interviews which first appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.  As these interviews show, the joy of multilingualism is that we are not tied down to one language and one culture.  We find identity and enjoyment from a multitude of linguistic and cultural sources.

Prof. Aneta Pavlenko (left) and Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele (right)

Aneta Pavlenko’s book Multilingualism and Emotion (2005) won the Book Prize of the British Association of Applied Linguistics in 2006.  Her work is not just academically brilliant, it is also powerful because it is based on extraordinary personal circumstances. As a Jewish woman in the USSR, Aneta suffered continuous discrimination, and when she finally left the country in 1990 with her young son and her mother, the last family jewels being robbed by the border guards, they found themselves stateless and penniless. After spending some time in refugee camps, they settled in the US where they had to start from scratch. Through hard work and perseverance, she realized the American Dream. She obtained her PhD from Cornell University in 1997, obtained a post at Temple University in Philadelphia where she has been teaching and researching since.  She quickly established an international reputation as one of our leading applied linguists. Her mother died from cancer two years ago, probably as a consequence of the accident at Chernobyl in 1986 (Kiev got soaked in radioactive rain after the explosion). Her son, Nik, is doing very well and has been accepted at Yale University.
— Jean-Marc Dewaele, Birkbeck College, London.

What are your languages?

Aneta Pavlenko:
My two main languages are Russian (my native language) and English (the language I now live in). My Ukrainian, while native, is a little rusty, which means that I can follow any text or conversation without any problems, but when I start speaking I get out a mix of Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish. I also have working knowledge of French, Spanish, and Polish.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Aneta: I grew up and received my secondary and higher education in Ukraine which was at the time part of the USSR. I left the country just before it collapsed and have sinced lived in the United States.

What language(s) do you use with your nuclear family (with your kids, husband/partner)?
Aneta: My partner is an English-speaker and my son’s dominant language is English, therefore, the language of my nuclear family is English. My use of Russian with my son is limited to ‘private language’ functions (requests or comments that others are not supposed to follow), tender diminutives, and scolding.

In what language did you receive your schooling?
Aneta: My secondary and higher education schooling took place in Russian, as I lived in eastern Ukraine where Russian was and remains a dominant language (although  since 1990 it is no longer an official language). All of our schools were trilingual, which meant that in addition to the dominant language of instruction (Russian or Ukrainian), students had to study the other language, and a foreign language. So in my case, Russian was the main language of instruction, and Ukrainian was studied through Ukrainian language and literature classes. Due to its typological similarity to Russian, it was quite easy to learn. Among the three foreign language options (English, French, and German), I selected French, but only after the first English class, when the teacher told us that by studying English we would be able to contribute to the war on capitalism and read secret messages from potential American and British detainees. It was the late 1970s and at that time I had no desire to contribute to the war on capitalism.

What languages do you commonly read in for work?
Aneta: My working language is English, but I also make sure to follow recent publications in my field in Russian and Ukrainian.

What languages do you commonly read in for pleasure (can you name some titles of your favorite books, poems, etc.)?
Aneta: Ever since childhood I have always enjoyed literature in several languages, the only thing that changed over time was the constellation of languages. As a child and a teenager, I read books in Russian, but also in Polish, Ukrainian, and eventually English (a language I picked from listening to my mother give private lessons). In the 1970s, Kiev had a large bookstore named Druzhba (Friendship) that sold books in a variety of Eastern European languages, including Polish, and it was through those books that we discovered not only Polish literature but also Western classics that were not translated into Russian. It was in Polish that I first read the Godfather and Gone with the wind.

Since I came to the United States, Polish books became difficult to come by, and now I read for pleasure in English, Russian, and French. I am very lucky to be in Philadelphia, because we have a Russian bookstore and so I have access to Russian books. French books arrive here via trips to Montreal or simply through Canadian (although I much prefer the experience of actual browsing in a bookstore). My favorite genres are non-fiction, historic fiction, and crime fiction, and any combination of the latter two. And so one week I might be reading a novel about Tudor England, the next a historic mystery about the court of Louis XIV by Jean D’Aillon, and the week after one of Boris Akunin’s historic novels about crimes solved by a brave nun Pelagiya. As long as I am interested in the topic, the language switch feels very natural. I really enjoy reading authors in their original languages, which is quite fortunate because literary translation is not exactly thriving in the US.

As to poetry, I can appreciate it only in Russian and Polish, and perhaps in French, the languages in which I learned to love poetry early in life. Somehow I never developed a taste for poetry in English, and I regret that.

In which languages do you commonly watch movies? (And what are some of your favorite movies?)
Aneta: My choices once again depend more on the topic and on the favorite actors/directors, rather than on language per se. In addition to English-language films, I try to watch French- and Russian-language movies on a regular basis, both as a linguistic practice and because I really like French and Russian cinema, especially from the 1960s and 1970s. My two favorite movies are Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” and Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal.” When I need to reactivate my Spanish, I tune in to a telenovela on the Spanish channel. If you do it right, however, telenovelas require a lot of commitment (five nights a week for a year or so), and so this is a measure I undertake only every few years, if something especially good is on with beloved actors and an intriguing plot.

In which languages do you usually dream?
Aneta: Over the years, I remember having all of my languages, from Polish, to French, to Spanish, to Russian, visiting my dreams. Yet the dreamspace, like all other areas of my life, is dominated by English.

In what language do you prefer to write, and why?
Aneta: English is the only language in which I am comfortable writing. Unfortunately, I have lost my ability to write professionally in Russian and it takes me a long time and a lot of effort to compile a simple abstract in Russian for an English-language article.

When you get angry, make a declaration of love, debate over a controversial issue or write a letter of complaint, what language comes to you first?
Aneta: All English, because it is my dominant language and it makes it easy to express my feelings, be they angry or tender.

Do you like to mix languages or do you like to keep them strictly separate?
Aneta: I definitely like to mix languages, and enjoy talking to my friends who are also Russian-English bilinguals. For many of us this is the only opportunity to be fully ourselves.

Did you ever rebel against a language or decide not to speak a language?  If so, why?
Aneta: Not really. My emotions are usually directed against people, not languages.

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen Trimble May 31, 2010 at 10:30 am

What a wonderful thing to be able to read in so many languages. This article was inspirational for me! I think I’ve been so focused on my daughter’s bilingualism, I forgot about me!! I could watch movies in Spanish to brush up, or read in Italian–yikes, I feel so lazy:-( but inspired too 🙂


2 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:19 am

So true! We often forget about US, the parents. And really, that is who needs the most motivation. Our kids are simply following along in our footsteps. If we can’t feel satisfied and strong and motivated in our footsteps, then our kids certainly aren’t going to either. I love these Multilingual Lives interviews! There are more in Multilingual Living Magazine and I’m thinking of doing some new ones here too.


3 Melissa December 8, 2011 at 12:48 am

“For many of us this is the only opportunity to be fully ourselves.”

YES. This is exactly it. The only thing that comes close is being with people who are multilingual in another combination – it doesn’t seem to matter what, as long as they’re used to switching countries and languages.


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