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  • Isabel Steele

Trilingual, i.e. multiple identities? The continuous experiment

Spending my reading week feeding the soul, with books only lightly related to my MA, I’ve gifted myself some time to rekindle creativity. I’ve gone back to texts I poured over during my travels, and questions I’d mull over for hours. Exteriorly presenting a sporty, wild child who just loves jumping into cold water at any opportunity, behind the scenes it’s been an intensive, ongoing process of language learning, cultural immersion and questioning. An amplification of the search for the sense of self. Because, as a linguist, surely a multidimensional identity becomes necessary if you are to integrate into the cultures you study?


In this post, I want to question whether this multidimensional identity really is created through multilingualism, or whether we just project a steadfast ‘I’ into new words and places. Furthermore, whether this multi dimension should be cause for unbalance and loss of belonging, or an enrichment of self.

Taken during MA year, Oxford.

A simple first point, and one of my favourite aspects of this question, is voice and intonation. People who know me point out how my face and pitch changes as I switch between my languages. For example, in French and Spanish, emphasis increases towards the ends of collocations as the most expressive part of a sentence, the adjective, comes after the noun. The pattern of your facial expressions will change to match this variation. The round mouthed and guttural interjections in French are switched for wide mouthed vocals in Spanish. You often can’t make these unfamiliar noises without changing your facial expressions, adding an eyebrow raise or extra shoulder shrug you may never use to complement your mother tongue. Not only can this make me feel different as I enact my words, but it can also make people perceive me differently.


Another linguistic point, is the conceptual changes in verb usage between language combinations. In English, we ‘are’ always something. Hungry, x years old, fearful, emotional…whereas in French and Spanish this is often translated with avoir or estar, translated as 'to have' or 'to be' in a short-term sense. Both of these verbs remove the constance from their connotations. I enjoy expressing myself in this way, as it allows me to be more transient and honest in certain states. You are not your emotions or your thoughts, they are simply passing through!

My short term home in the jungle of Peru, a closed chapter that remains part of my path.


This kind of contrast goes the same for idioms. You can’t have your cake and eat it, in France, unfortunately. Rather, you want your butter and the butter’s money (vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre). Many expressions and concepts are simply blocked between your languages and requires time to find the idiomatic equivalents. Alas, these new ways to express yourself can’t come home with you, as no one in the UK will understand if you have a ‘cat in your throat’ or have to get going as you have ‘other cats to whip’.


This new glossary of conversational references must expand to local slang, and finding lexis and humour that are aligned to your ideals to make yourself understood. While many of your cultural references are lost in translation, finding the local equivalent is an enthralling task. We have contrasting politicians to critique and celebrities to impersonate, and clearly distinguished ways of spending our down time, often dictated by climate. Sometimes jokes can't cross seas, because they’re just not relatable elsewhere. While sarcasm and dry humour is, in fact, gloriously universal, you can’t get away with beating around the bush beyond British airports. Living abroad, I found myself having to foster a more abrupt, direct tone in order to keep with the pace; British niceties redundant! Just remember to redeploy excessive pleases and thank yous when you get back.

Living barefoot is not something I've managed to integrate into UK living yet!


Further to the linguistic spectrum, are the internal perceptions of self and surroundings which change categorically. By speaking to a local in their own language, rather than a medley of gestures and single liners, a more profound level of understanding is cultivated. You are trustfully exposed to first hand accounts, tales of family strife, community challenges, and regional specialities. If you’re lucky, you may get access to an unmediated view into their spiritual practices, coming alive through their animated words, rather than stagnant in English text. By living these contradictions, linguistically and culturally, your perceptions of the world change.

Mariangeles, my feisty Peruvian sister who proudly taught me all my favourite Spanish (swear) words.


However, due to many specificities being climatically or topographically appropriate, these mannerisms often have to stay where you learnt them. In Guadeloupe, I was a passion fruit gardener, eating organically from the earth, living physically. In Peru, I was carb loaded and overtly tactile, living emotionally. In the Alps, I was explorative, fearless and living socially. In the UK, I tend to spend my time in university institutions or working from home, living intellectually. Such singular indulgences seem to stay compartmentalised to each country, reinforcing the theory of a multidimensional identity depending on your surroundings and cultural context.

The Peruvian banana farmer who gave us a lift on his river boat, and green grapefruits for the ride.


One of the most beautiful experiences living abroad is, in fact, not celebrating those linguistic bridges between mutual understanding or smooth translations. For me, it is the way cultures and communications strain and challenge truisms within yourself. This allows the axiom that your ‘I’ is a single entity, to be diversified. You can be one person in your comfort zone, at home, living your routine, but a very different ‘I’ is called upon when responding to life through another language.


Your ‘I’ immersing itself in new cultures must be more self sufficient, explorative, and open minded. It must be able to contend with not making itself understood, an impaired ego and accepting that its familiar desires will often not be met. It’s about opening up to other ways of fulfilling your ‘I’. I believe this does create a multi dimensional identity; I certainly feel like I have fostered different needs and habits depending on where I live, as I try to blend into a community.

Keep reading: diversify and internationalise your bookshelves!


Currently reading ‘Women who run with wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, I have been inspired by her study on the Bluebeardian concept. This comes from a fable, teaching that ‘in a single human being there are many other beings, all with their own values, motives, and devices […] Some psychological technologies suggest we arrest these beings’, but this would be the end of multiculturalism, the narrowing of the democratic mind and loss of individual freedom. ‘Rather than corrupt her natural beauty, our work is to build for all these beings a wildish countryside wherein the artists among them can make, the lovers love, the healers heal’ (35:1992). We are one, we are many. While you can (and should) wholeheartedly and authentically present certain sides of yourself at any one time, I am yet to believe we can turn up with all of them.


What I see in this is a reminder to nourish every side of ourselves. The creative, the lover, the fighter, the passion fruit gardener and the cuy chomper. The guerrière and the loca. The Parisian cosmopolitan and the Marseillaise sommelier. As linguists, we enjoy multiple identities that allow us to authentically blend into foreign cultures, rather than look in through a (sometimes contorted) English lens. Therefore, linguists must keep updating their knowledge, keep learning new vocabulary and keep fluency between their language spheres. Multidimensional identities - how wonderful is that? Nourish them all!

Street art embellishes the walls in Tarapoto, Peru.


To close this post, it must be said, that despite all three languages muddled in my brain, I still swear obnoxiously loudly in English when I stub my toe. I guess you can’t change a person completely.


I'd love to hear the opinions of other linguists. Do you feel one and whole as a multilingual, multicultural kaleidoscope? Or do you change your identity like your clothes when you move abroad?


Issy x

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