Multilingual Identity: Is Our Multilingualism a Costume, a Disguise?

by Corey · 4 comments

multilingual costume disguise reality

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Scott Calleja

Have you ever listen to This American Life with Ira Glass? I listen to the podcasts each week while making dinner and am always, always moved, inspired and touched by the stories of humanity – at its best, at its worst and everything in between.

The stories remind me that we are all in this life together. Yes, together.

We all feel pain, joy, love, disappointment, success, failure, indifference, happiness at one point or another. We all long for connection, to be seen as we really are, to make choices that are good and right and positive for ourselves and our families.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to This American Life’s Secret Identities show. In the second chapter we are introduced to a girl who is shy, unassuming and average. She doesn’t like to be in the spotlight and doesn’t see herself as anything special. She is just your normal American girl getting by in life under the radar. However, we soon learn that due to a particular sequence of events, she ends up as the wild and crazy mascot of the school’s sports team; a giant tiger who instills inspired cheers and wild frenzies from spectators in the stands.

Not all of us would have the wherewithal to take on this role. It takes more than just putting on a costume. It takes gumption! Or so one would think, right?

As the tiger, our average American girl is transformed. She is wild. She instills feverous applause from her audience as she performs crazy gyrations and antics. The audience comes to see sports being played as much as they do to see the tireless tiger.

But the catch is this: Our heroine can do all of this only when she is the tiger. Only when she has on the costume can she let herself go. She can’t even do a cartwheel when she is no longer the mascot. But with the heavy costume on, she can cartwheel like a champ across the field. Really!

I loved this episode of This American Life. It created in me an inner glow, one imbued with a sense of faith in humanity. It reminded me that when push comes to shove, we find ways to tap into something deep within ourselves. When that tiger is in us, we find ways to let it out.

However, I was left with a few nagging questions: Was the girl in the costume pretending to be someone else when she was the embodiment of the tiger or was she tapping into her true self; her true nature? Did the costume give her an excuse to run away and hide from herself; to avoid facing who she really is? Or did it give her an opportunity to finally express a side of herself that was hidden under her shy exterior; to finally stretch her arms wide and shine?

As I pondered these questions about the tiger and myself, I started asking questions about my own identity: What do my different languages and cultural identities say about me? I feel like a different person when I use my different languages, what does this mean? When I cling onto an identity that I developed while living abroad, is it an attempt to deny my Americanness; to push away that which feels so ordinary and bland? Am I trying to become someone else? Or am I simply feeling close to a particular part of myself?

As multilinguals do we use a specific language to unleash the tiger within us when we feel the need for expression in a more vibrant way? And alternately, do we hide behind one of our languages when we long for the safety of anonymity; of fitting in?

Are our languages and cultural identities costumes or disguises that we put on at will; a way to show the world a particular side of ourselves that we want to display? Or are they simply unique elements of our personalities that blossom, fade and then blossom again throughout the course of our multifaceted lives, like our emotions or states of mind? Are we ever completely authentic? Or is this back and forth our true authenticity? Our true selves?

With today being Halloween, the day that allows us to become anyone or anything we want to become, what better time to ask ourselves: Who am I? Where do I belong?

I think most of us will find that we belong somewhere between here and there. We are both shy and average as well as the vibrant tiger cartwheeling across the field.

And when it comes to our languages and cultural traditions, they are forever destined to be both who we are as well as who we are to become.

What do you think?

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ana Paula G. Mumy November 1, 2013 at 10:20 am

Thanks, Corey…great food for thought! I think the beauty of bilingualism/multilingualism is that our identities are multi-faceted, and in the same way language use is context-dependent, how we portray ourselves is also context-driven. I’m often told I’m more expressive and animated when interacting in Portuguese. Maybe it’s because Brazilian culture tends to be more warm and loud in a sense. My interactive style may change slightly when interacting in English, but I’m still fully Brazilian in my frame of mind/reference in how I respond, react, perceive situations, etc. while at the same time also being influenced by the American culture I’ve lived in for 25+ years. Again the beauty of exposure to more than one culture and language!


2 Rachel November 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I’ve noticed myself that I become more animated when I switch to a different language. Sometimes I think it’s because that language simply allows for it better (try speaking Spanish or Italian with gestures)… But I think that I’m simply more animated in the languages I don’t speak so well. As soon as my skills in that language are good enough, I use less of the gestures and silly facial expressions, because I have the words to convey what I mean, I don’t have to supplement it anymore.

(But, of course, I do have a different identity in some languages. Trying to explain where I’m from is always tricky, and the answer is different depending which language I speak! For example, in German, for reasons which completely escape me, I always tell people that I, or my parents, are from Scotland. However, in Gaelic, that simply doesn’t work, because they can tell I’m not [I can get away with it in Irish, though!]. So I’m Australian. In English and Spanish, I’m usually English. But it doesn’t change who I am, I’m still the same, it just saves me from having to explain dual nationality in a language I don’t know the words for “dual nationality” in.)


3 Fred November 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

Very interesting article and question Corey. I am French, speaking English fluently and still in the process of learning good-ish German… I don’t really know where I belong, where my children and my husband are, there I belong I suppose. But I never had the feeling that I was different when speaking a different language. When speaking German I get frustrated because I still don’t have a very good level and therefore cannot always express what I would like to, but my personality is still the same. The only change is the pitch of my voice. I apparently speak in a lower tone in English than in French.


4 Petra November 19, 2013 at 3:17 am

Very nice article. 🙂


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