Managing multilingual identities is like playing chess: you use your quick-thinking analytical skills to move between different coloured blocks, making deliberate decisions about who you are, who you want to be or who you have to be, and what you want others to see; negotiating your way through a maze of outside perceptions, inner understandings and carefully chosen representations of self to a sometimes monochrome and fallaciously monolingual and mono-cultural world. However, a multilingual life is much more colourful, complex and multidimensional than a bi-coloured chess board.
Identity is about constancy and difference (who I am and who I am not); self-representation and perception (what I want the world to see and what the world sees); agency and imposition (the amount of control I have over my identity construction and the weight of social structures). Identity evolves and changes, grows different affinities and acquires distinctive hues throughout life. One develops multiple identities in any context – you are a mother, a daughter, a wife, a professional, a choir singer, an activist and a friend – in a multilingual life, these identities cross borders, languages, cultures and expected behaviours: you speak to your parents in one language, communicate with your husband in his language, develop a mum-son relationship in a third language and speak to your friends in the language your relationship was first shaped in.
Garcia (2009) refers to translanguaging as a phenomenon where bilinguals have constant access to their language repertoires, systems and discourse practices and use these resources to maximise their communicative potential; thus, a multilingual person is not two or three distinct monolinguals in one person, but a whole made up of various different linguistic parts. In terms of identity, I would like to invent the term transidentifying. Thus the difficulty for a bilingual to answer the question: ‘So, do you feel more South African or Portuguese?’ I always feet ‘put on the spot’, as I don’t feel more or less of one or the other and I always feet like a traitor if I chose one over another. I’m not even both, which is the answer I end up using, I just am!
Identity doesn’t always depend on a language; it depends on the experience or period of life, on the feelings and the persons involved. School for me invokes sunny days in English and Afrikaans; mum conjures up caring and worrying in Portuguese; meeting my hubby evokes hot deserts and ‘habibi’ in Arabic; my son’s education will forever be linked to France. However, other’s perceptions also provide a different prism through which to see yourself: at a Fête des Voisins (Neighbours Day celebrated in May in France) one of my neighbours said how happy he was to have met me, adding, ‘You are the first Portuguese person I know, who speaks French with an English accent’. I also confused a lovely North African young girl, who couldn’t quite match my name to my paleness and accent, and the French will always ask me if I’m English, due to my ‘petit accent anglais’. Are these my French identities?
I would probably say that I’m South African with Portuguese background, living in France, working in and studying through British organisations, married to an Egyptian, and a fervent supporter of multilingualism!
Garcia, O. 2009. Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In: Mohanty, Panda, Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas. (eds).
Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local.