Michiana Chronicles: Stop Pretending You're Monolingual

Nov 5, 2020

I have to stop pretending I am monolingual by birth and by upbringing. Like many of us, I was born into a family that was engineered to be monolingual over generations. Engineered by national decree.

I have to stop believing my native tongue is French. It was French objectively, yes, but such facts can be misleading. I don’t mean to be facetious, but if one can be a born-again Christian, can I resolve to be a born-again polyglot? Metaphorical re-births have always bewildered me, but now I’m starting to grasp not so much the appeal of rebirth, but its potential power. Though, admittedly, language is not a religion. Or, is it? As I am writing this, I am toying with the idea that if there is such a thing as a native tongue, there’s got to be a patois of passing, a dialect of the curtain call. If I’m given some time and a small, familiar audience before my last breath, I’d like to enunciate a few words on my death bed, something grand that would encapsulate my entire life’s wobbly trajectory in a few sentences of… total gibberish, of kick-the-bucket vernacular in its most outlandish form, a language I would coin right then and there to mark the occasion.

Our native tongues are the ones we were born into, not the ones we are born with – the thousands of languages all of us are neurologically fit to speak at birth. A kick-the-bucket dialect should be the idiosyncratic amalgam of all the languages we have failed to activate in our lifetime, a playfully tentative and inquisitive dialect, “polysyllabicking” its way into the great beyond. Perhaps we are born speaking our mother tongue, but we are not born to speak the language of our mothers, the language of our mother lands. Mother land. Make it singular, for there must only be one. One mother. One tongue. One mother land. It is a matter of national security and longevity. Multilingualism is the kick-the-bucket vernacular of national unity. So hang on to your tongue! Your mother tongue. Your mother land. Or don’t. You have many mothers. The languages of your forefathers still dance in your bones. The languages of your grandchildren are summoning you. The languages of chance encounters, of cultural and economic attractions are awaiting. And stop saying you have no gift for languages. Treat yourself a little. And if you cannot, try and speak your language as if it was not your mother’s. Because, in all likelihood, it was not your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother tongue.

I learned this the hard way. I was born and raised in France, into what I call a “very” monolingual family. Both of my parents spoke French and only French. And so did my grand-parents and my great-grandparents. Or, so I thought until I sang in Provençal – a dialect that used to be spoken in the South of France – on the occasion of my grand-mother’s birthday. It was the mid-seventies when Provence and many other second-class regions across France were reclaiming their regional languages as their last speakers were dying off. My grandmother, an elegantly stern woman who raised two boys on her own in the aftermath of WW2, got a bit emotional. That was out of character for her. The song featured a man who smoked a pipe while slacking off at work, a very appropriate song for a French school girl. My grandmother told me she knew the song, she knew the language I was singing, this language which was beaten out of the children at school. She reminded me that our last name meant silk worker as well as silk worm in that language. She said we no longer spoke the language of our name. She was glad to hear me sing in Provençal. But whoever thought that particular song – “tuba la pipa” – should now go down in history through the public school system?

I have to stop pretending I am monolingual. Though I honor my family’s surname and the languages of my ancestors, je suis d’où je vais, I am from where I am going. As an adoptive mother, I have always known, I am always reminded, I am only one of my child’s mothers.

Anne Magnan-Park is a literary translator who teaches English and French at Indiana University South Bend. No mono- is her new motto.

Music: “Blue Bell Know” by Cocteau Twins