Saturday 19 May 2012

Being multilingual in a single language?

Multilingualism in a single language – why not? I, for one, see no difference between saying Olá! vs. Hi! in what are said to be different languages, and saying Olá! vs. Ôi! in what is said to be the same language.

Let me explain. When Brazilian telenovelas first reached Portugal, we Portuguese found ourselves wishing they had come with subtitles. It wasn’t just the words, the rhythms and the intonations of the different varieties of Brazilian Portuguese portrayed in the episodes that were alien to us, it was the body language too, through which we tried to make sense of unintelligible lines. Things got better, in time, but only in time. With our eyes glued to the screen, we practised our daily listening to make intelligibility happen.

Several years later, I moved to Britain, where I came to have my first regular contact with Brazilians. One evening, I was watching a thriller on TV with one of my Brazilian friends. The good guy was leisurely making his way home, where we knew, but he didn’t, that horrid bad guys were waiting to do horrid things to him. I had to express out loud my jitters about the hero’s predicament, and the following drama took place in our room:

Act I
Me, the native speaker of Portuguese: Este tipo vai-se meter num sarilho...
My friend, the native speaker of Portuguese: Quê!?

[Interlude, while these two lines were repeated in measured and louder tones, with zero effect on intelligibility, until I decided to translate what I had said into (non-native) English.]

Act II
My friend: Ah! Esse cara vai entrar numa fria!
Me: Quê!?

Both my first line and my friend’s last one mean, roughly, ‘This guy is done for’ (in some varieties of English, perhaps?) – and I probably don’t need to explain what Quê and Ah mean. The bottom line is that we were both glad that we could resort to (English) subtitles, as it were, to make sense of our respective foreign Portugueses.

Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, cursory visual inspection of the two lines in question shows that we were speaking two different languages. This is why my Brazilian friends and me had huge amounts of fun making fun of our funny cross-Atlantic accents, turns of phrase and gestural habits, and accusing one another of “speaking like my grandmother” (this is a mild insult, by the way, in both versions of our language), which shows that historically-marked uses of language feature in both geographic and generational varieties. Daily practice ended up improving mutual intelligibility here too, but we remained, as George Bernard Shaw said of England and America, divided by a common language. I had more in common with the British, with whom I shared cultural traits, than with the Brazilians, with whom I shared a language. My friends felt the same about themselves and the Americans, as opposed to me. Maybe the labels Old World and New World are there for a reason.

The question is, then, why did we all call what we were speaking “Portuguese”? The reason we go on saying that we share a “common language” must be a matter of habit, drilled into us by whoever was drilled, in turn, to say so. A matter of political convenience (and probably correctness too), in other words. Politics in fact holds the clue to what defines a language: the sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularising the criterion which hits the nail on the head, when he quipped that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. What we call “a language” can no more be defined linguistically than what we call “a nation” can be defined geographically. Which also explains the urge of creators of new nations to decide which “national language(s)” to institutionalise.

Mutual intelligibility is sometimes used as the touchstone of language distinctiveness, in the sense that if I understand you, then we’re using the same language, and if I don’t, then we’re not. Questions arise here too, besides the ones illustrated in Acts I and II above. I may understand you, but you may not understand me, so where do we draw intelligible boundaries, and for whom? One of the reasons I found myself learning Spanish from my Spanish-speaking friends (in Britain too) was that they didn’t understand my Portuguese, whereas their American Spanishes were crystal-clear to me – although I can’t say the same of several European Spanishes.

Many of us become multi-dialectal in our language(s) the way I did – if that’s the right word to call it by. I learned when to talk about caras and frias instead of tipos and sarilhos, in Portuguese; I learned, in Britain, to say crisps for what my school textbooks said were chips, because chips are what you eat there with newspaper-wrapped fish, not what comes on its own in plastic bags; I learned, in Singapore, that you on and off the aircon; and, whenever I’m back in Portugal relaxing in lingua-franca-English among local and foreign friends, I do my best to avoid Britishisms and Singaporeanisms in my English vocabularies, grammars and accents.

Many of us grow up multi-dialectal too, perhaps in less fun-filled ways: monolingual children don’t always have it easy sorting themselves out in what adults call their language, in the singular. I turn to this matter next.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Little multi-dialectals. Wednesday 30th May 2012.


  1. If the Portugueses have problem with their varieties of the language I cannot imagine the same problem on Spanish varieties spoken all over the world!

  2. Tłumaczenia Biznesowe Angielski (since you gave no name): This is so with big, “global” languages like Portuguese, Spanish and English, but no less, in fact with “small” languages. It all depends where they’re used, how distinctive (or not) their users wish to be when they use them, and so on. I'm thinking of Swedish, or Danish, for example.
    Thank you for your thoughts!


  3. Spanish speakers from different part of the world do have some trouble understanding other Spanish speakers. Good examples of this are: Argentinian Spanish, Castellano from Spain, Cuban Spanish just to name a few, although there are many more. These are considered to be distinct Spanish variants to the extent that a speaker from any one of these 3 variants will have trouble fully understanding a speaker of the other. This happens with French variants, English variants as well. At the end of the day they all speak Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, but with their own flavour.

  4. Flavour is a great word to describe what you say, ‘Anonymous’. Local “ingredients” give rise to differences in vocabulary, accent and grammar, which may feel like uses of different languages across users. To add to your examples, some uses of Portuguese, even within (tiny) Portugal, do feel this way.

  5. I couldn't agree more. I think about it when I hear criticism over multilingual parenting while even in a same region we have lots of words to say the same. And also, as a Brazilian, I agree with everything you wrote in this post about Portuguese language.

  6. Well put, Mario! Precisely my point: no one seems to think as hard about the complexities of being monolingual.

    Muito obrigada pelo seu comentário! – in problem-free Portuguese, I hope ... :-)


  7. Walt Disney films (for instance) are dubbed into two or three varieties of Spanish

  8. Same thing for Portuguese dubbing of these films, Miquel, now that you mention it. It only shows, doesn’t it, that if the purpose of using language is to reach out to people, there are ways of making language serve this purpose. Thanks for pointing this out!

  9. We have different vocabulary and certainly accents across the US, and though I have never had trouble understanding another American, I know people who have.. When I first moved to Ireland, I know there were some mutual moments of embarrassment when, though we were supposed to be speaking the same language, we didn't understand each other. I have also learned vocabulary in my various experiences that don't translate, so I find myself teaching new vocabulary to my interlocutors.

  10. Joyau: I really like your take that the way to deal with linguistic differences is to educate ourselves and our interlocutors.
    And thank you for confirming that borrowings and loanwords are needed within the same language. To me, they’re the spice of our linguistic experiences, as I wrote in Languages come in flavours



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