“Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 61).
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you changed the way you were looking at a phenomenon, where you felt like you went from being an outsider to becoming an insider in a community? It can be rather destabilizing to open your eyes and realize you are seeing things through a new light, starting to understand familiar situations with a new vision, finding yourself thinking like an insider and taking on a new role.
Tzvetan Todorov experienced this “double-thinking” (Pavlenko, 2014) after he lived in Paris for almost twenty years. He had been invited to give a conference in Bulgaria, his country of birth. As he found it easier to write in French rather than his native tongue at that point in his life, he had to translate his speech back into Bulgarian. This is when he noticed that he had to change his point into its reverse view since some of his ideas would have made no sense in the Bulgarian context where he was going to speak. He came to realize that his experience of living in France had changed the way he considered a certain phenomenon and that no one back home would understand what he wanted to express. He had become an insider, a Parisian intellectual, and had shifted his position from that of an outsider, a Bulgarian in France. I suppose that this might happen to many migrants after some time of living in a new milieu, for those who develop new languages and maintain their first language (active bilinguals/multilinguals). How does it occur, under what conditions and who is inclined to experience this type of reverse thinking when they start opening their mind to other ways of noticing? Learning a new language might play a crucial role in this shifting of positions as we begin to perceive things differently, using a different vision/focus/twist.
When we acquire different languages, our double-thinking might be affected in ways that we talk to ourselves through multilinguistic “inner-speech”. The term inner speech originated by Humboldt (1836, 1999) conveys this idea of “thinking in a silent dialog with one’s soul” (Pavlenko, 2014, p. 208). Our inner speech changes along with our linguistic thoughts in the way we converse with our inner self. Making a deliberate effort to stay tuned to our inner discourse, sometimes going back and forth between different languages or code-switching, certainly has applications in a discussion on belonging, identity, language and diversity. We can be in a continual switch between languages without even being aware of its occurrence. Unexpectedly, words just come up, from nowhere. Every so often, lexes sound better in one language, or something reminds us of a special expression, or some words do not have a straightforward translation in another language. Has this ever happened to you? What might be the role of inner speech on the development of double-thinking?
What language(s) would you use if you wrote in a personal diary? Private writing might allow us to better understand the notion of inner speech when we favour a language over another. In order to try to understand my own inner discourse, I occasionally write down notes when noticing that I am interchanging languages. For no apparent reason, my inner conversations switch languages in my head depending on what I am doing, where I am, who I just talked to, what I am looking at, etc. Sometimes a word, an idea, a thought, an object will make me switch between different languages. In her book “Lost in translation”, Eva Hoffman (1990) describes the fading of her first language when she emigrated from Poland to Canada. She felt as though she had lost her voice for a while since she could not express what she was experiencing in her private writing. She described sensing a void in not being able to express herself in any of her languages which might, in parts, represent how outsiders feel coming to a new community who do not speak the same language.
Pavlenko discusses studies that investigate the role of culture and linguistic thought “in the interactions of specific individuals” (Sapir, 1949: 515), and she explains how members of different speech communities may not necessarily share interpretive frames and they may display difficulties in calibrating agreement and accomplishing intersubjectivity” (Pavlenko, 2014, p. 242). Intersubjectivity, a communion of the minds of a shared social reality, is not easy to achieve. “To reach intersubjectivity in a new language, we have to internalize new interpretive frames and to readjust the salience of already existing ones, learning, once again, what frames to use with whom, how, and when” (Pavlenko, 2014, p. 227). The way we see reality evidently affects the quality of our communications where breakdowns occur on a continuous basis if we do not learn to see things from a different perspective. Thinking outside of our comfort zone along with understanding other ways’ of thinking would greatly contribute to the well-being of our multilingual communities.
The importance of developing our intersubjectivity is clear because it has the potential of transforming our comprehension of certain phenomena. The repercussions on how societies can learn to progress and work together towards the benefit of all should be the path of the future. The human mind can expand and amplify the way it envisions events and phenomena. The implications of this are important as the responsibility lies with educators, families and communities as partners in order to prepare all of us and future generations to live together harmoniously in societies. Appreciation of languages and cultural differences can contribute to opening our mind and seeing things with various perspectives. The relationships that we create with people who come from different cultural backgrounds and who speak different languages than our own might challenge our ways of thinking, seeing, doing, acting, interacting, being, viewing and understanding the world around us to help us realize that there is not only one truth. In today’s world, with more and more interaction and communication between individuals, it is a necessity to learn to switch perspectives in order to be able to recognize other people’s points of view.
Consequently, the concept of mnogoiazychie (polyglossy / multilingualism) proposed by Bakhtin is of interest for this discussion since he stated that “only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language” (Bakhtin, 1981). How much influence does multilingualism really have on developing intersubjectivity? This is certainly a complex issue. Nonetheless, respect for our differences and understanding of another person’s language, culture and beliefs cannot be appreciated enough. What are our choices? We can resist, prepare, celebrate, adapt and do much more. Although change is challenging, it is up to us to make the best of the opportunities that are offered for developing our ways of understanding new realities in the world today.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by MM Bakhtin (M. Holquist, Ed.; C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.).
Hoffman, E., & Mazal Holocaust Collection. (1990). Lost in translation: A life in a new language. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books.
Humboldt, W. V. (1836, 1999). On Language: On the diversity of human language construction and its influence on the mental development of the human species.
Pavlenko, A. (2014). The bilingual mind: And what it tells us about language and thought. Cambridge University Press.
Sapir, E. (1949). Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949), 162.