Over the weekend, I spent many hours running the canteen at an Irish dance “Feis”. My daughter is a dancer, and every year they host a competition, attracting dancers from various parts of Europe. Over the weekend, I spoke to people from Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Finland, England, Ireland, the US and Canada. The most satisfying part of the experience was being able to help people in their own language. People say that English is the global language, and that if you speak English you don’t need anything else. I disagree, and this weekend was a good example of why. When people approached my canteen counter, I could often tell they were hesitant to order – worried about which language to use, and not wanting to get it wrong. I quickly figured out that the best way to put them at ease was to offer “English, francais or nederlands?”. I only speak a little German, but there was a German woman helping out and she took over the German side of things. It was such an amazing experience to see how people relax and feel more at ease when someone offers them linguistic options – and communication becomes an act of inclusion rather than exclusion when both people are making an effort.
But watching my daughter do the same was equally moving as well – she speaks English and French fluently and her Dutch is reasonably good, but she is shy about using it. Having the opportunity to use all three languages, sometimes in the same conversation was something that really brought home to her how lucky she is to have the opportunity to be multilingual, and how powerful it can be to speak to people in their own languages, rather than always through the medium of English.
The whole event was surrounded by an impressive linguistic atmosphere, with people speaking in many languages, and moving back and forth between them to achieve the best communication. Germans speaking French with Belgians, and Belgians speaking English with Italians and so many other combinations. It led me to reflect, once again, on the idea of “translanguaging” in bilingualism. Once we move past our ideas that a language is static and must be used as such, we realize that language is infinitely changeable and malleable and that we can do whatever we want with it to promote communication and inclusion. Seeing translanguaging in action was a brief insight into what communication could be like if we all make an effort to use the languages of people around us.
Next week: An introduction to translanguaging for bilingual education and bilingual families.