Multilingual Intimacy and Pluralistic Identities

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Angèle Yehe Zheng, author of “Letter by a Grateful Immigrant” and “Humor in Heidelberg: Saša Stanišić’s Herkunft,” reflects on multilingual speakers’ exclusive use of one language for distinct purposes in the following blog post inspired by Olga Grjasnowa’s book talk, Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit, and Professor Deniz Göktürk’s Fall 2021 German and American Studies seminar on “Cultures of Migration.”

In the conversation “The Power of Multilingualism,” author Olga Grjasnowa discusses various issues concerning multilingual societies in relation to her new book Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit (2021). During the discussion, I was struck by a question posed by Yasemin Yildiz, Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at UCLA, regarding Grjasnowa’s consistent use of German in all of her works despite her multilingualism.

Grjasnowa grounds her monolingual use of German both in her lack of competence to write in Russian or English without flaw and in the lack of a necessity for her to use any other language in her creative writings. Yet I think that there is more complexity to her choice than grammar and logic, as I believe language is deeply associated with memories, habits, and even character traits that influence the way one thinks, writes, and behaves. Therefore, I want to delve deeper into the use of one prominent language in certain areas of engagement, be it fictional writing or intimate conversations, by multilingual persons. 

As a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Luxembourg, I have been able to speak and read Chinese, German, and French from an early age, and adding English to the mix in middle school wasn’t difficult for me either. But again and again, I find myself preferring to converse with my family in Chinese, write academic papers in English, and draft fantasy pieces in German. 

I believe that “literary monolingualism” has something to do with the environment in which the language is used. Certainly, just like Grjasnowa’s claim, my ability to only write academic papers in English has to do with my lack of skills in writing academically in other languages I know, since I received all of my higher education in English. But my use of German in writing fantasy is another case. Growing up in an environment that is strange to me, German was the first language through which I gained the freedom and power of exploration by reading fiction. Fantasies such as Die unendliche Geschichte by Michael Ende enchanted me and gave me means to investigate the world I live in without the risk of being mocked or attacked. I find myself reflected in protagonists such as Bastian Balthazar Bux, as fantasy protagonists are often outsiders of a society thrown into a new world. Similarly, I was rushed into an unfamiliar environment as I became a student in Luxembourg, gaining a position in a society where I was a stranger. As the literary protagonists gain experience and confidence through their exploration in a fantastic land, I myself feel empowered by it as well. I wanted to be like them, to adapt to a new world as seamlessly as they do.

Yet whenever I close a book, I am again alone in a world in which I am estranged by the language and culture surrounding me. So I started to use this new tool, the German language, without a fear of imperfection as I use it in solitude, to create structure for my confusing life. I thought that if I try to become familiar with this new tool, and if I could construct a reasonable fantasy world in which I see myself succeed as a stranger, then I will eventually be able to understand and gain a place for myself in the society I live in as well. With this deep connection to my childhood pursuit for recognition and knowledge, I do not believe myself able to write fantasy in any language other than German.

Language provides understanding, but sometimes, the knowledge we gain in one language does not translate well into another. When me and my family members use French, Luxembourgish, or English around each other, we all feel a sense of strangeness. My parents become formal and business-like, and my sisters act in an audacious manner. Similarly, when me and my sisters want to discuss academic matters, we find ourselves inevitably switching to English at a certain point, acting unlike sisters but fellow students. It seems that the experiences we gain through a certain language have constructed an identity that inevitably seems strange to people who know us through another language. 

Through the use of different languages, I seem to live multiple lives and multiple personalities. Sometimes it brings pain, as I cannot find a way out of being a shy and scared thirteen-year-old teenager whenever I speak Luxembourgish. I also find it difficult to forge a deep connection with people who do not speak Chinese. But then, using English more frequently after my teenage years, I found a new opportunity to define and express myself. I was given the chance to start a new life and create a new self, an additional attempt in exploring the world after having formed identities with my other languages. No longer constrained by the isolated life I once had in Europe, I became the kind of person whom I have long wanted to be.

The power of multilingualism might just lie within the multiple opportunities in building new identities with individual languages. People are shaped by their use of language, and this process of becoming will eventually hit a critical point where one’s habits and personality are formed. But multilingual people have extra room to explore and define themselves through their use of different languages. My use of German in writing fantasy is an expression of my effort to explore and establish my identity as a quasi-fantasy heroine in my Luxembourgish world. Without this skill, I would continuously struggle with the dissonance I experience between my family and the world outside of our home. But by having multiple languages as markers for various character traits, I have been able to bring structure to my experiences, and with that, a holistic imagination of the world. 

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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