Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Reflections on the Polyglot Self: Multilinguals Negotiating Identity

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Reflections on the Polyglot Self: Multilinguals Negotiating Identity

Article excerpt


In this paper I discuss how 10 multilingual residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia make sense of the meaning of their multilingualism for their identity. Contemporary work on multilingualism focuses on the ways in which globalization, diversity and the commodification of language affect multilinguals' language practices and identity. As the movement of people, information, and goods across borders increases in quantity and complexity, multilingualism becomes both more common and more highly valued. It is within this context of greater emphasis on the value of multilingualism, and perhaps greater acceptance of certain types of multilingualism in North America, that participants reflect on, and communicate, the meaning multilingualism holds for them. For participants in this research, multilingualism was the basis for a polyglot identity that focuses on increasing cross-cultural understanding and forming a sense of belonging to the world at large. While some felt that each language entailed its own specific way of being, all understood languages as connecting them to other cultures and ways of understanding the world around them. From this basis they developed a polyglot identity based on cross-cultural understanding and inclusivity.


Cet article traite des facons dont dix habitants multilingues de la ville de Halifax, Nouvelle-Ecosse entendent la relation entre leur multilinguisme et leur identite. Les etudes recentes du multilinguisme soulignent les effets de la mondialisation et de la commoditisation de la langue sur les pratiques et sur l'identite des personnes multilingues. Avec la croissance et la complexification des flux des gens, des biens et des informations a travers les frontieres nationales, le multilinguisme devient a la fois plus commun et plus valorise. C'est dans ce contexte de l'accentuation de la valeur du multilinguisme, et peut-etre aussi de l'acceptation accrue de certains types de multilinguisme en Amerique du Nord, que les participants reflechissent a la signification de leur multilinguisme et parlent de celle-ci. Pour les participants a cette recherche, le multilinguisme constitue la base d'une identite polyglotte axee sur la facilitation de la comprehension interculturelle et la formation d'un sentiment d'appartenance au monde entier. Tandis que certains d'entre eux croient que chaque langue apporte sa propre facon d'etre dans le monde, tous pensent que les langues les relient avec d'autres cultures et d'autres manieres de comprendre le monde autour d'eux. A partir de cette base, ils developpent une identite axee sur la comprehension interculturelle et l'inclusivite.


Recent research on multilingualism has been grounded in critical sociolinguistics, an approach that attends to how identity and power play into linguistic interactions (Lamarre 2013). Informed by this approach, and drawing on semi-structured interviews and language-use diaries, I analyze the way multilingualism shapes identity for ten multilingual Haligonians (the name for residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia).

Heller (2003) discusses the ways in which globalization leads to increases in the commonality and value of multilingualism, while Vertovec (2007) and Blommaert (2013) draw attention to the increasing complexity surrounding communication and identity in super-diverse cities. There is evidence of increased acceptance and even celebration of multilingualism amongst segments of the North American public (Pavlenko 2006; Lamarre 2013). A shift is taking place from focusing on languages as in tension and competition with each other, to a view of languages as able to coexist comfortably, perhaps even playfully, in the same space. This 'space' is both the physical places in cities (an integral part of Lamarre's (2013) research) and the space of the multilingual person. As Pavlenko (2006) lays out, in 20th century America there has been a development in the discourse surrounding multilingualism from seeing multilinguals as multiple monolinguals in one body who are necessarily in tension with each other, to a sense that the self can be comfortably hybrid. …

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