Psychologists often cite writers and poets to illustrate their own arguments, thoughts, or comments. I’ll take the opportunity to imitate them. And who could provide me with better material than a poet or writer who is multilingual himself?
Often, as a reader we do not know if the author whose work we are reading is multilingual, although there are many more multilingual authors than we might think. As most books do not explicitly address multilingualism, we may only find brief mentions of multilingualism in their biographies or anecdotes.
However, sometimes multilingualism appears as a main or essential topic in one book or another. This is the case, for example, in the novel Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African writer. I am well aware that the novel does not realistically document the life of the author himself, but rather its elements are put together in the interest of composition and storytelling. The characters and situations in literary works, although they seem “real”, are created realities designed to speak of something deeper than the story itself.
Still, I have been interested in what questions multilingualism raises in Coetzee’s text.
In his novel Boyhood, he narrates the story, through the eyes of a child, of when his parents moved from the capital to a provincial city for work reasons, and later returned to the capital again. Although the book takes place in a single country, South Africa, due to its multilingualism and multiculturalism, many of the situations it covers may seem familiar to people who have moved from a big country to a smaller one and then back.
While they lived in the capital, the parents opted to use English at home despite their Afrikaans origins. This was because they considered it of the utmost importance to teach their son not only the language but also English culture and values. It is therefore not surprising that, on returning to his provincial hometown, not only language, but also customs felt alien to the boy. A few years later, after familiarizing himself with the provincial, he returned to the capital and found surprises in store for him. In this way the author allows us to see the different groups of society from the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. This privilege, also typically multicultural, is the driver of the novel.
The boy is 5 years old when he moves from Cape Town to a small rural town:
“His brother was still a baby, kept indoors out of the sun; there was no one to play with but the Coloured children. With them he made boats out of seed-pods and floated them down the irrigation furrows. But he was like a mute creature: everything had to be mimed; at times he felt he was going to burst with the things he could not say. Then suddenly one day he opened his mouth and found he could speak, speak easily and fluently and without stopping to think”.
In another chapter he adds that:
“Though his surname is Afrikaans, though his father is more Afrikaans than English, though he himself speaks Afrikaans without any accent, he could not pass for a moment as an Afrikaaner. The range of Afrikaans he commands is thin and bodiless; there is a whole dense word of slang and allusion commanded by real Afrikaans boys- of which obscenity is only a part- to which he has no access”.
Coetzee provides an insight not only into language problems, but also into the relationship between the different social groups in South Africa, their movements, and their responses to the political structural change of that time. From the perspective of a little boy, the author describes the environment at the time and the intentions, identities and attitudes of different generations from a very intimate perspective. Nor does he leave out teachers, whose work also seeps into political orientations and personal prejudices.
In this way, the book gives a critical image of a certain society during at a particular time, while at the same time shedding light on questions that we can ask ourselves when living in a multilingual or multicultural family or country. These questions are not only about language and cultural identity, but also about the ambitions of different generations, the repetition of cultural traits between generations, albeit in different forms, and many, many other subtle nuances.
After all, these are all issues that can arise in any family raising a multilingual child. It is true that, in the rush of everyday life, it is not easy to take time to read. When looking for books on multilingualism, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the shelves labelled “education” or “linguistics”; we can try the fictional literature section too. The result will be surprisingly enriching.