Wednesday 21 November 2012

“Wait... *Where* are you from?”

= Acknowledgement =
Muito obrigada, Karin and Ruchika,
for very enlightening correspondence concerning this post
and, not least, for inspiration for the post’s title!

Has anyone ever complimented you on how well you speak your native language? I don’t mean praise for those of us who may be professional speakers, I mean praise for ordinary speakers like you and me. It has happened to me, about Portuguese, from fellow Portuguese and in Portugal, on the grounds that I don’t look very Portuguese (apparently). Before I decided that such episodes were actually quite funny, I had to overcome the unsettling sensation that I had just been insulted by being complimented.

Certain features of speech seem indeed to be expected from certain facial and other physical features (apparently), in the same sense that you wouldn’t expect your pet dog to bray. This is all fine: we all have our stereotypes and associated expectations to live and judge by, which we actually develop in early childhood. But how do we, adults, deal with human beings whose looks and speech don’t match our expectations? We could revise our adult expectations in adult ways, of course, since facts are facts and stereotypes are fiction. More often than not, however, we attempt to make new facts fit old expectations, so we can go on entertaining these. I never understood why it seems so much easier to hang on to useless theories (of which expectations are a subset) which fail to explain observed facts, than to reject flawed theories, in the face of facts which contradict them.

Expectations come complete with labels, the problem being that expected labels cannot obviously account for unexpected facts. Not just labels about looks and speech, either. I remember, for example, a lengthy discussion in the major daily newspaper in one of the places I’ve lived, seriously asking (and seriously getting serious feedback on) whether women over 50 years of age should wear jeans. And I’m just rereading Notre-Dame de Paris, where the destitute Gringoire’s fleeting moment of solace on a day of complete debacle, personified by a dancing and singing young beauty whom he’s persuaded must be a fairy, a goddess, a nymph, is shattered by a sudden realisation: “Hé non! dit-il, c’est une bohémienne.” And Victor Hugo, canny observer of human nature that he was, adds: “Toute illusion avait disparu.” Other mystifying beings likewise cease to mystify once we choose to identify them by means of familiar labels: we can now deal with the labels, and stop bothering about the beings. Just look at the labels that go on being pasted onto multilinguals, as I discuss in my book Multilinguals are ...?

On several occasions, in my teens, revealing my nationality caused Gringoire-like disillusion among international (ex-)friends, who up to then had deemed me quite worthy of their polite company. I’m sure they had their reasons, but my point is that my answers to their questions about where I was from were as straightforward as their dismissal of me upon hearing them: I “was” indeed “from” Portugal, at the time, though I’ve come to doubt whether this place I am from provides the best definition of who I am, period. Or why it should.

Image © Succu 2010 (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

Place labels rank high in cataloguing practices: “where we have them” enables retrieval of appropriate decisions about how to relate to them, on the strength of their where. In the face (literally) of people who were, say, born in X from parents born elsewhere, grew up in W, had children in Y and T, then moved to R and Z and, to top it all, speak our language (among others) as well as we do, the same question crops up: “Where are you from?”, with stress on Where and a high-rising tone of bafflement which attempts to secure the “fact” that people must belong somewhere, in the same sense that your pet dog belongs to you.

A single somewhere, that is, because answers revealing pluralities, like “I come from Portugal and Sweden”, don’t seem to pass muster either. The “Wait...” bit in the question usually denotes glitches in processing multi-factual answers to mono-minded questions. Similar questions require simple, i.e. single(minded) answers to it: there must be an X, such that X stands for the place where your biological mother happened to go into labour, which then means that you belong to X. As if you belonged to places – or rather, as if places owned people. You can read a sample of other intriguing questions asked of multilinguals and multiculturals (and also a sample of my production when I’m in sarcastic mode) in this piece, ‘The bilemma in the bilingual brain’, published in Speculative Grammarian, “the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics”.

I’ll have more to say about multilingual “roots some other day but, next time, I’d like to turn to the effects that classificatory labels can have on children’s academic and overall development. 

© MCF 2012

Next post: Language therapy or language tuition? Saturday 1st December 2012.


  1. Hi Madalena, thanks for this excellent post! One of the things that's especially disheartening is the notion that you can only "belong" to one place. Not only does it cause confusion and raise questions about identity in the individual's mind, but it also makes that person wonder whether they can ever make friends/acquaintances or even meet a life partner who understands this "identity crisis."

    You become so habituated to moving in and out of cultures/languages/certain behaviours, that you can't distinguish which one's the "real you!"

  2. Hello Ruchika, warm welcome to this blog!
    I think we would need to say that one’s “real you” is best defined by what you write: “moving in and out of cultures/languages/certain behaviours”.

    The trouble is that so many of us go on clinging to the idea that people are basically static, invariable, un-plastic beings – or should be. I really wonder why?? Adaptability and active engagement with our surroundings is, to me, what keeps us alive and healthy.

    The thrill of it all is that we end up with so many exciting places where to feel at home. Thank you so much for your comment!



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