One of my favorite poets is David White, a wordcrafter extraordinaire. His writing has a gentle yet profound way of reminding us to stay true to who we are, even in the face of a world that prefers we fit neatly into a prescribed mold.
Here are the first few lines from his poem titled Self Portrait:
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
Or many gods.
I want to know if you belong — or feel abandoned;
If you know despair
Or can see it in others.
I want to know
If you are prepared to live in the world
With its harsh need to change you;
If you can look back with firm eyes
Saying “this is where I stand.”
Do you know where you stand?
As multilingual multiculturals, do we ever know where we stand? Crossing bridges, traversing plains and jungles. We transcend space and time. Where do we really belong? Do we even know what it means to belong – anywhere, to anything?
My guess is that we find our sense of belonging, our place to stand, in a dimension which defies both space and time. It is a place inside ourselves which gives meaning based on the varied paths we have taken to get where we are now; language and culture being integral to that whole.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter how many languages we speak or how completely we are passing them on to our children. What it really comes down to is how our languages have come to shape us and how we in turn shape the world and those around us.
Is your multilingual family the real deal?
There used to be a time when my “place to stand” had much to do with the fact that I was part of a “real” multilingual family. My husband is a native German speaker who can speak English fluently, so he passed the test. I learned German for the “right” reasons: to get to know my husband and his family completely. So I passed the test. I chose to raise my children in my second language. That was extra credit.
We weren’t one of those “dabbler” families. No, we were the real deal. Those dabblers were just playing around. We were in it for the long haul. They were only doing it so that their children would be smarter. We were doing it because we couldn’t help but do so.
Yes, it felt good to step into that box of my own making. It fit like a custom made glove: tight, confident and protective. I felt special and feeling special gave me a solid place to stand.
Yet, as time as passed, that feeling of superiority eroded. It brought me little comfort and created an artificial divide which made me feel uneasy and out of place. Did it really matter if another family didn’t seem to be as dedicated to language and culture as mine? Was it really so black and white or were there unending shades of gray? And ultimately, who cares if a family chose to dabble, why create categories and boxes and initiations all in the name of exclusion?
It often seems that the need to create such divides comes from our deepest desire and need to belong. We want to know where we stand. We want to create a line in the sand so that we can say, “This is where everything I love exists and only those I allow can enter.” We feel protected and safe, loved and secure.
Yet multilingual families everywhere are searching for these same things. Humans as a species are searching for these things. The need to differentiate over such minuscule matters creates only greater anxiety and fear.
Whether we are reuniting with a language and culture from our past, or embracing a brand new language and culture, we are united by similar desires. We only share with our children that which is most important to us. The fact that multilingualism is clearly high on our lists should bring us together, not tear us apart.
When have we ever gone to such lengths to expose our children to Spongebob Squarepants!
Multilingual families unite
I now go out of my way to connect with families who are searching for ways to introduce language and culture to their children, regardless of how many languages they can speak fluently and how perfectly they fit into the image of the “real” multilingual family.
If a family is excited, interested, and emotionally involved in more than one language, then they are just as multilingual as my family. If they allow language to get under their skin and want to pass on this deep love of languages and cultures to their children, then they are just as dedicated as I am. We are one. United we are stronger. United we have a voice. United we can change the world.
As we all know, it is far better to raise our children to love languages (even if we rarely hear our children speaking them) than it is to force our children to speak them just to please us. Language is about communication and connection, not goals. It is about broadening ourselves as wide as possible, not fitting into a delineated box. In the end, language is the journey itself.
Have you ever felt yourself feeling superior to other families who are not “truly” multilingual? Or perhaps you are a family who has been treated poorly by other multilingual families because you haven’t mastered another language? Please share your thoughts and experiences!
Photo Credit: Thomas Huy Photography