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Saturday, January 7, 2012

My homeland is my language?




If you’re familiar with one of the great figures of 20th century literature, my fellow countryman Fernando Pessoa, you must have recognised the title of this post as a tribute to him.

Pessoa didn’t question that his homeland was his language, though: he stated it. In his autobiography of sorts, Livro do Desassossego (‘Book of Disquiet’), he wrote that “Minha pátria é a língua portuguesa” (‘My homeland is the Portuguese language’). Far from me to engage in the speculation surrounding what Pessoa meant by this, but I like the idea that your language, any of your languages at any given time and place, feels like home.

Languages are not just sets of conventions to express meanings, they also reflect those meanings which their users find relevant to express. This is why we talk about kräftskivor in Swedish and about fado in Portuguese, but not the other way around. (I had to say this: in case you haven’t been told, my beloved, multi-rooted, multi-cultural, and very Portuguese fado gained recognition among UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage just recently.)

Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that a Portuguese-Swedish multilingual, say, will relate to both kräftskivor and fado – or to whichever local practices these languages reflect. In order to feel at home in a culture, you need nurturing in that culture, a point made by Una Cunningham in her book Growing Up with Two Languages. Both the languages and the ways of living those languages need input, so that they can be made ours. You can find out more about this at Una’s website, where you can also listen to parents’ and children’s reports about their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural experiences.

Nurturing is something that people do, according to the practices of the groups to which they belong at specific times and in specific places. The places, however, instead of the people, somehow came to be seen as the owners of cultural practices – and so as the owners of people, too –, in the sense that you “belong” somewhere. “Somewhere”, in turn, came to mean not only ‘a single place’, usually the one where your mother happened to give birth to you, but a homogeneous place – in the sense that if you belong to Portugal, say, then you relate to fado. But there’s fado and fado, actually, both of which are Portuguese because the two places where they come from, Lisbon and Coimbra, respectively, happen to be located in the piece of land we call Portugal.

The problem with defining who you are by means of a place is that places are, well, stuck in place, whereas you and your languages aren’t. The association of (one) land with (one) identity didn’t hold water for Fernando Pessoa either. Like many literary figures past and present, he used several languages, and published in them too. But it was his “homeland” which spoke in multiple ways through the different voices of his heteronyms, all of them Portuguese. Granted, these were literary personae, but there’s no difference between what they represent and what all of us do in everyday uses of a single language: there is more than one way of being at home in any single language.

Small wonder, then, that so many of us find our home in different languages too. I never understood the funny claim that belonging to more than one place means that you don’t in fact belong anywhere: having several homes doesn’t mean you’re homeless. And it doesn’t mean either that you must belong to one place more than to another, in a replay of the myth that you must also have one language that tops them all. So what happens when someone can’t accept, or won’t accept, that people don’t need to belong, or don’t want to belong, to a single place – and perhaps don’t care about issues of belonging? The next post gives one example.


© MCF 2012

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira Phd is an Education Consultant currently working in Singapore.
Posts welcome in English, French, Portuguese, Swedish – and related languages.
One of my latest books, Multilinguals are...?, deals with myths, paradoxes and misconceptions about multilingualism. See endorsements at Battlebridge Publications and reviews at My Pages.

I found this article very interesting as a layman, and could totally relate to, being a polyglot myself. Over the years I have been questioned as to where is my home and although, by birth I am Portuguese, I feel equally at ease and adapt to the various cultures that represent the languages I speak and have experienced.
I hope that all multilingual speakers can identify with the material in this post, or at least will understand better some of the feelings they may have experienced about where they belong.

To follow Dr. Cruz-Ferreira's material, use the link http://beingmultilingual.blogspot.com/

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