Jabberlingual: A Multilingual Life in a Monolingual Village

by Alice · 11 comments

By Alice Lapuerta

We Jabberlinguals live in a decidedly monolingual, monocultural part of Upper-Austria: we live in The Village.

The Village is a small town in the country-side, surrounded by lush forests, green meadows and yellow fields. In the distance you can see the snow-capped Alps. A picturesque place, where fox and rabbit tell each other good night, as one says in German.

Austria in its glorious history is actually known to be a “Vielvölkerstaat” – a state of many peoples. This has been conveniently forgotten by some politicians today. And Austria’s multiculturalism has somehow entirely bypassed The Village as well.

Sure enough, now and then you do hear some fleeting Italian. Or French. Very rarely Spanish. That is because of the French, Italian and Spanish tourists that climb out of air-conditioned double decker busses, with an officious guide who carries a stick from which this little white flag dangles. We come in peace, citizen. Our Village is a bit of a tourist attraction, you see.

But this kind of transit multilingualism doesn’t count. The inhabitants of The Village are not only firmly entrenched in Upper Austrian tradition, folklore and custom, but also in Upper Austrian German. We Jabberlinguals – how can it be otherwise? – are the exotics here. We collect scrutinizing looks every time we venture out of our four walls, jabbering on in our three languages.

“Tourists, of course,” these looks say every time. We get a benevolent smile, because tourists are very desirable. They bring the cash. Once I even got asked, in English, mind you:

“Where are you from?” Surely they must be from America! Or Japan.

“The Village” I reply. This almost always brings the conversation to a dead end. At best, it earns me a confused and disappointed look.

But it’s true. I grew up here (before we moved to Korea, Ecuador and the U.S.). I have probably lived here longer than the person who asked. I have known the school director who was here before the current one, and even the one before that one. I remember what the main street used to look like before the butcher, tobacconist and the grocer were replaced by the big Spar supermarket. I probably know a lot more about this village than you. And even though many people know me by now, I still keep being asked where I’m from. Thus is the Jabberlingual way of life, I suppose. We Third Culture Kids will always remain the eternal foreigners. (I wonder how my kids will feel about this one day.)

Sometimes, it is just too complicated for me to explain all that. It is a lot easier to just humor them and play along. Never mind that I speak German fluently.

“Oh, you know, we are from all over,” I reply chattily in English, all the tourist. I would wave my Polyglot travel guide under their nose if I could, as extra emphasis. “We’re from Austria, Ecuador, Korea. We’ve also lived in the USA. Oh, and we also have family in Sweden.”

“Aha,” they say, evidently overwhelmed. And still the conversation comes to a full stop. I wonder why this always happens.

When I was a teenager I was so frustrated with the “where are you really from” question that I was tempted to add “Pakistan, the Philippines and Azerbaidjan” just out of spite. Except this never ended up being very gratifying because people would just go ahead and believe me anyway.

Now that I am older and wiser I take this question with equanimity. Hey, it’s not people’s fault that they didn’t grow up with the Jabberlingual way of life! So how should they know that this is one of those questions that one simply does not ask? Like “how old are you?” and “how much weight did you gain over the Christmas holidays?”

Sometimes, though, we also get the patronizing kind of look. Especially when we show up on playgrounds, schools, or playgroups – the places where tourists don’t usually tend to hang out. Then you can see their minds working. “NOT tourists. Zuagroasta!” Zuagroasta, that is Upper Austrian for “he-who-joined-us-from-outside”.

“We are the strawberry-picking immigrants,” states The Hubby. He brings it to the point. Strawberry pickers are those Ecuadorians who flock to Spain by the thousands and end up having low-income jobs, as strawberry-pickers, for instance. They live a very hard life there.

But my father-in-law tends to see the positive side of it all:

“It is the Ecuadorian re-conquista,” he says, not without a certain sense of satisfaction. I like this. It is fitting, is it not? We Jabberlinguals have commenced the multilingual re-conquista of Upper Austria, specifically The Village!

But in all fairness, most encounters with people of The Village are positive. They know us by now (“those freaks who can’t decide what language to speak in their family”). In fact, everyone knows us, and I never seem to know them.

We truly love our multilingual life in The Village. We wouldn’t live here otherwise. And if we ever get tired of all the monolingualism here, when the pull of internationality just gets too strong to ignore, we pack up and go – to Ecuador, Korea or the US. Or to a different country altogether.

After all: The Village is where we live, but the world is our home.

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laura June 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

I lived in Holland (in Leiden, a university town north of Den Haag) for 5 years with my Dutch hubby and eventually our first child. Unfortunately this coincided with the anti-immigrant backlash in most of Europe. While I was there a politician in a major Dutch party proposed outlawing people from speaking any other language than Dutch, including to your children at home (never mind how they would enforce that!). Even though I took my required Dutch classes, learned the language and became a citizen I was always given dirty looks when speaking English with my husband and daughter. Even my in-laws were un-appreciative of our bi-lingual way of life. In change I never felt quite welcome.

Eventually we decided to move back to San Francisco where we had met. We have been back 3 1/2 years and I have to say we have never received odd looks when speaking in Dutch out of the house. Mostly it is curiosity, followed by praise for raising our children bi-lingual. My son and daughter also go to school with kids who speak an abundance of languages – Russian, French, German, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin among others.


2 Corey June 13, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Thank you for sharing, Laura! I had no idea that other countries had that attitude toward families speaking a minority language. It is fascinating to me (being that I didn’t have to personally experience it – then it would be emotional and personal!). So glad you are in a situation where you now feel “normal” surrounded by so many people who speak other languages! I am from northern California and have always felt that San Francisco is a great place for multicultural living!


3 Tatiana Asakura November 15, 2010 at 2:12 am

Oh, thank you two for relieving my mind! I have moved from rather relaxed Duesseldorf to THE VILLAGE in Gouda area, Netherlands with Japanese husband and 2 Russian-Japanese daughters. Everything mentioned above has already touched us, in one way or another, but I still hope we manage it here, and the article gave me a spark of hope))) That damn AAAA! and conversation cut ubruply at the playground I was attributing to my personal looks or watever else in me. Rushed to the mirror to check if the zipper is closed or the hair is smooth… cried and had panic attacks… well, it definitely can be taken easier. THANK YOU, Alice, Corey and Laura!


4 Alice June 21, 2010 at 2:08 am

Thank you for sharing! Wow, I had no idea that things were so bad in the Netherlands that they actually proposed outlawing languages other than Dutch … Very sad! Happy to hear that your kids are doing so well now in all their languages, and that they are growing up in a supportive environment! Way to go! 😀


5 Romana June 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I like the theory of the Ecuadorian re-conquista ;).
Here in Stockholm, despite bigger than The Village, if you don’t have the Viking look, they still ask you: “Yeeah…but where do you really come from?”. I think they love to hear the nice story of an inmigrant fighting difficulties and coming to their country to succeed. My husband lives here since he was 3 years old and some people called him “that polish guy “, although he feels a complete stranger in Poland.
In my case I have a Spanish accent, Polish name, an Italian and now Swedish passport… so they are really confused.
As far as I know in the case of Canadians and Americans, you become one of them as soon as you get the citizenship. Perhaps because most of them come from some kind of inmigration, so they already got tired of asking about the family story to everyone.

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed a lot.


6 Corey June 13, 2010 at 10:10 pm

I love your statement “the Viking look” – hah! It is interesting how many judgments we make by looks alone. Seems like a world-wide human phenomenon. What a fabulous mix you have with all those cultural connections! Wonderful!


7 Alice June 21, 2010 at 3:04 am

HI Romana, The Viking Look, LOL! I love it! Have you noticed that people comment on your kids’ looks as well? From what I’ve seen they DO have the Viking Look, or? 🙂 People simply cannot resist commenting on our kids on a daily basis. They keep trying to figure out whether they look more European, Latino or Asian. It causes me amusement to no end, though now and then it does tend to be a bit annoying … 🙂


8 Johanna June 21, 2010 at 10:03 am

Hi Everyone,
Really liked the article, Alice, probably since I experience the same every day here in Iceland, especially in the small village (910 people) I’ve lived in the last 8 years. It’s a tad better in the capital area, but we’re talking about a population of 320,000 individuals, completely monolingual (apart from A LOT of American/English TV), so the whole country almost qualifies as a village. There aren’t even any dialects to speak of.
Born South African, I speak Afrikaans to my children, but I’ve many times over been so self-conscious (and I’m so not a self-conscious person) that at times, I’ve avoided addressing my oldest daughter at all in public, as I find the incessant questioning and staring too intrusive. However, we’ve persevered and my daughter, who is now 5, seems perfectly happy speaking Afrikaans to me.
We’re in a tri-lingual household, Afrikaans, Icelandic and English, and somehow we make it work, albeit not with its ups and downs and plenty of misunderstandings! My Icelandic husband has been extremely supportive and it’s made the world of difference to me. Ironically, during a recent visit to South Africa, where there are no less than 11 official languages, I found that my husband and I speaking Icelandic in the Afrikaans community attracted almost just as many stares and comments as here in Iceland! I accept that I’ll probably be the eternal linguistic foreigner in both my “home” countries. On the other hand, that’ll always make me more open to new experiences and other cultures!


9 Alice June 22, 2010 at 12:51 am

Hi Johanna, what a wonderful and rich linguistic situation you have! I can totally relate to your experience of wanting to avoid the minority language in public sometimes. I find that it does get better over time (especially as the people in the village get to know you) or maybe we don’t notice it as much. We get used to it … Thank you for sharing and all the best! 😀


10 Jenny June 27, 2010 at 12:36 am

Alicia thank you for an inspiring article! Especially your words of “the village is where we live but the world is our home”. I am an American who speaks Spanish living in Cornwall, England (former teacher turned stay at home “mum”). I was convinced we lived in the only monolingual village in Europe! It’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone.


11 Alice June 28, 2010 at 12:14 am

Thank you for your comment, Jenny! I think there are a lot more of us around than we think/are aware of. We just need to find ways of “finding” each other and connecting – and this website is one sure way of doing so! 😀


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