The multilingual citizen in a multicultural society

I want to speak about the experience of being bilingual and bicultural and its educational benefits. I am not an expert or an academic and I have no research findings to share. I have worked in diverse communities for over 30 years and my only evidence is my professional and personal experience. This experience is not unique, in fact it’s probably the majority experience in all the schools and colleges I’ve worked in.

My story is not particularly remarkable. It starts with the fact that I have a French mother and an English father. This sounds simple, but in fact my mother is from Corsica and my father’s family was from Scotland on one side and Huguenot from France on the other. And so we move from the mainstream to the periphery; Corsicans, Scots and Huguenots are often viewing things from the margins. They are minorities from the ‘wrong’ side of the border, minorities who have had to fight to find a voice and work hard to learn the language of power.

I grew up in London, one of the world’s most powerful centres of human gravity. London, the great metropolitan melting pot where everyone is a stranger and where we can all lose ourselves and find ourselves. But I also spent my long summer holidays in our small Corsican village where I felt just as much at home. This is a place where you are never lost, where everyone knows everyone, where your house is open to all and where your business is almost certainly known to all.

I was genuinely bilingual, both languages were my indispensable tools; necessary for me to get by in my home city, to communicate with family, friends and teachers. I moved smoothly between the two different languages and learnt the different codes of meaning and emotion in each of them. There was never any question of consciously translating, just of expressing things as well as possible in one or both of these two languages. When people asked ‘what language do you think in?’ the only sensible answer was: ‘neither’ or ‘either’.

I was aware of culture and of the connection between language and culture. Certain ways of seeing things and doing things seemed to be French, Corsican or English. I read different types of text in each language. Amongst others, Tintin and Asterix in French, E.Nesbit and Richmal Crompton’s William stories in English. Because my parents had a very diverse range of friends from around the world, I was reminded daily that people see things, do things and express things in very different ways and that each perspective is equally valid.

No one ever lectured me about respecting others, it was just an obvious part of normal social interaction. No one ever suggested to me that there was something suspicious or threatening about difference, it was just obvious that difference was a stimulus, something interesting, something to explore. Xenophilia was the norm. So when I first encountered xenophobia, racism and prejudice I was quite shocked and it took me a while to understand where it was coming from and the harm it could do.

I may have been bi-cultural and bi-lingual but because of my parents’ very broad interests; for example in African, Indian and Japanese art, music and literature, our house was always multi-cultural and multi-lingual. So I grew up in an environment of stable values which was also rich in difference, both safe and challenging, a strong basis on which to reach out and explore the world.

All this felt normal to me but I realise now how lucky I was.

I think it is this combination of the known and the unknown which is the basis of all learning. Learning is a constant encounter with the unknown. We use what we know to try to make sense of what we don’t yet know; building connections, constructing metaphors and analogies, testing our hypotheses against the reality in front of us, telling our stories and seeing if others recognise them. To really learn we have to seek out the challenge, the different, the other, the unknown. We have to stand in a different place and see things from a different perspective. Not always easy, but always educational.

As an adult I’ve not nurtured my bilingualism as much as I would like. But recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with French colleagues and speaking at educational conferences in France and I’ve tried to discuss education and describe learning more fluently in French. The process of translation has been an opportunity for learning forcing me to reflect on the meanings of our words and what I’m actually trying to say.

So for example ‘apprendre’ is to learn and ‘l’apprentissage’ is learning, but it also conjures up ‘apprenticeship’ which has other meanings. Vocational training is ‘formation professionelle’ which implies a shaping process rather than simple practice. We have no easy adjective for human fellowship to translate ‘solidaire’ (solidaristic? in solidarity?). Can we speak of ‘valeurs republicaines’ (republican values) in England without making the Queen a little uncomfortable? Are these values anything like our own ‘British values’?

The French have a phrase ‘projet de societe’. How would we translate this vision of a better world into English without sounding ridiculously utopian? And above all, there is the wonderful French institution of ‘l’Education Nationale’ around which the nation can unite while also debating it passionately. We are proud of our National Health Service but sadly have little hope at the moment of building any kind of National Education Service – more’s the pity.

So when we translate, we’re not just translating words, we’re translating ideas, perceptions, feelings, a whole culturally shaped perspective. Saying something in another language gives it a whole new meaning and sharpens our grasp of our purpose.

And where is identity in all this? Each one of us is constructing our identity throughout our life. It is fluid, shaped by our changing relationships with others, always provisional, a work in progress, full of tensions and questions. It is dialectical; a conversation with ourselves and with the world.

We need to learn to keep our own identities open and in question and to distrust the intransigent identity politics of those who are so convinced that their particular combination of beliefs, values and perspectives is a fixed and superior identity that they have lost the ability to step aside and see the world from anyone else’s perspective.

This is not a theoretical concern. The leader of a British political party told us last year he ‘feels uncomfortable’ hearing foreign languages being spoken on a train and more recently that children of immigrants should not be allowed to be state educated until they have lived in the UK for 5 years. This betrays a suspicion of the other and a wish to hide them away and to exclude them from the benefits of education and our common life. It is fairly clear what sentiments are being encouraged here.

The reality is that when we meet someone new, instead of turning difference into the problem, we often start by finding what we have in common, however tenuous, a language, a geographical origin, a shared interest, some shared history, a mutual acquaintance. At the most basic level we are all human and we can all share our common humanity, the experience of living, loving and losing and all the associated emotions.

In contrast, I would quote the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, describing where we might aim to be in his poem Gitanjali:

‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free. Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit. Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action’

To experience being multilingual and multicultural is to go beyond the differences between people. The multicultural learner experiences difference within themselves and has a different understanding of the other because the other is within them. They have a plural identity.

But this is not an experience unique to multi-lingual people. In fact every one of us can be multi-lingual and multi-cultural. We speak in different registers with different people and on different occasions, we have different roles in different contexts. We connect and move between different settings and traditions. We are all capable of seeking out the other and taking a different perspective because we each contain our own plural identities and our own different perspectives.

We just need to refuse to be imprisoned by a single perspective, a single identity or a single voice. And we need to reject narrow, suffocating categories and labels as these foster ignorance, mistrust, hatred and division.

So, let’s not allow ourselves to be afraid. Let’s celebrate our diversity, our multilingualism and our multiculturalism both collective and individual. It is the basis of our learning and it is what binds us together as human beings.

Speech given on the occasion of the presentation of the Palmes Academiques at NewVIc, 18th March 2015. Original in French available here.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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