Being bilingual in multicultural South Africa shaped my childhood and heralded many new worlds as an adult. Walking down the street in a banal suburb of Johannesburg was a multilingual experience.Mum stopped and talked about home to a Portuguese compatriot; the cashiers at the OK Bazaars, a local supermarket, giggled across the aisles in Afrikaans; Dr Segal looked after my health in English; the Greek owners of the corner takeaway conversed in their mother tongue while they served us shwarma; the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho passers-by tickled our ears with the clicking sounds of their languages. I participated in the Portuguese conversation, understood the Afrikaans cashiers’ jokes and chitchatted with my friends, my sister, my cousins in English; I picked up the language of Molière in school classrooms and lecture theatres, while I dreamt of Paris, yet the Greek sounds and the African melodies escaped me. There was nothing exceptional about this mosaic of sounds, some meaningful and recognizable, others simply fascinating – it was quite normal.
Being bilingual (speaking two languages) or trilingual (speaking three languages) or multilingual (speaking several languages) is not a unique phenomenon that only happens in a faraway and exotic land – in fact, most people in the world function in everyday multilingual situations. I could rewrite the paragraph above and describe a multilingual stroll through the linguistically rich but perhaps-not-so-romantic Parisian metro: I huff and puff in French; help the American tourist in Paris get off at the Louvre stop; enjoy the varying Chinese tones between mum and child; smile at the lively Arabic conversation; and accidentally eavesdrop on disconcerting Portuguese Creole (I recognize the words but can’t quite follow the conversation).
Contact between neighbouring linguistic communities, migration of peoples around the world, intermarriage and professional mobility all create favourable conditions for the development of multilingual individuals living in linguistically diverse societies. In a celebration of the destruction of the Tower the Babel, a multilingual world is much more colourful, stimulating and intriguing.