Eight years ago, I was invited to attend a theoretical seminar on the history of Andalusian folk dances in Athens delivered by the Spanish flamenco artist Torombo. I knew that the seminar would be held in Spanish, and there would be no Greek or English translation provided. Despite my ‘poor’ Spanish and the understanding that this would not be a typically hands-on dance workshop where you hugely rely on extralinguistic cues, such as body language and dance movements and all you need to do is observe carefully and mimic, I decided to attend, hoping that I could count on my Spanish speaking friends who would have hopefully picked the same time slot with me. Only they hadn’t. On the contrary, the day I was able to go, there happened to be some fellow flamenco dancers who had not even had the basics in Spanish; and Torombo himself, as a genuine Spaniard, would not utter a word in English…
So, the seminar started and there I was wondering how I would cope with the little Spanish I had picked up from that one trip to Granada, when… a miracle happened! I could understand everything! I mean, admittedly, Torombo was an incredibly expressive artist, not only through his eloquent body language and facial expressions, but also through his very clear, loud and round articulation! He had the most distinct enunciation I had ever heard. It felt like I was “reading” from a book! I was in a pleasant state of realisation and recognition that in fact my basic Spanish was not poor at all, when there was a call for translation from some attendees who were having a hard time understanding and meaning making.
Text by: Panoraia Balali
Without giving it a second thought, possibly out of a work-related reflex, I jumped to the task and started interpreting on behalf of Torombo. And although I often had to negotiate for some more perplexed meanings, as at times Torombo made use of some rich and thick, literary narratives, after almost two hours I couldn’t help noticing that I was not exhausted from the effort. On the contrary, I was surprised to see that I was feeling exhilarated and energised! Meanwhile, all that time there was a little voice going on in my head trying to resolve (the mystery) how I did it! I mean, I didn’t even have an elementary level in Spanish, how was it that I made sense of almost everything?
Reflecting on the experience I can detect a couple of reasons why it felt like such a smooth process. First of all, I was not officially assigned to be a translator to the event which might have possibly filled me with anxiety due to lack of relevant experience, since I would want to exhibit professionalism. On the contrary, I jumped to it with the aim of just helping around, knowing that others would contribute too, keeping a carefree, playful mindset all the time. Therefore, the affective filter, (oh, Krashen, my Krashen!), was low and I was having a blast; hence not feeling tired! Secondly, my linguistic background may be basic in Spanish, but it is also intermediate in the fellow Romance Italian, proficient in Greek and English, elementary in German, and I often pride myself on the knowledge I gained about the origins of many words from the dead languages I studied at school: Ancient Greek and Latin. That day, while trying to mediate, I felt like all my linguistic repertoire came into play. I wasn’t merely translating from Spanish to Greek; I was drawing from all the linguistic resources I had gathered from the differentiated levels of proficiency and competence I had in all the languages I knew. I didn’t know it then, but I was translanguaging. Stems and roots from Italian, English and Greek were flexibly called upon ‘wearing’ Spanish or Romance-like prefixes and suffixes and vice versa, all interrelated in a creatively messy dance: a dance of cognates. I could swear I was discovering new connections of my own linguistic equipment to the Spanish ‘lengua’ (and was probably making new synapses) that day.
It felt effortless, almost magical to me how my mind could switch so easily to any of the language repertories available. And it felt very surprising to discover this new ability I didn’t know I had, as I had never been in a similar environment before. It was only a few years later, when I started working as summer staff in the UK that I experienced similar sensations amidst the multilingual classrooms I was asked to teach.
“I didn’t know you were multilingual!” one of my friends exclaimed towards the end of the workshop. Neither had I ever thought of myself as one, before I received this external recognition. I mean, I always identified myself as a teacher of English, and at the same time acknowledged this sense of the mix and match of languages I had gathered over the years from various social or instructional occasions, but I realised it feels different when an external source validates it for you. It works kind of like the Think Aloud Protocols; Externalising enables and fosters the process of internalising!
But was I expressing my multilingual skills at that social event after all?
Many people confuse the terms bilingual, multilingual and plurilingual. However, according to the Common European Framework (CEFR) there is a clear distinction between Multilingualism and Plurilingualism. The first term describes the coexistence of multiple languages in the same geographic location, but ‘considers languages and cultures as separate and somehow static entities’ (Picardo, 2018, 2019). For example, all the continents of the world are multilingual because different languages are spoken in their countries, but not all countries are multilingual. However, countries like Russia, India, South Africa, Canada, Switzerland etc are multilingual, despite having both monolingual and plurilingual inhabitants. Multilingualism does not take into account the relationship between languages. Plurilingualism on the other hand, emphasises this relationship, and describes the range of varieties of languages which mainly individuals can access in everyday interactions. Thus, an individual can be plurilingual in a monolingual or a multilingual context. In other words, plurilingualism refers to a person’s linguistic ability and not necessarily to their linguistic competence. It is a personal dynamic feature and skill related to linguistic diversity and the awareness of other languages and cultures.
In today’s society, which is increasingly characterised by diversity and inclusion in both language and culture worldwide, it seems that the most powerful aspect of plurilingualism is the one related to education and learning. There is a shift happening regarding the vision of the learner as a social agent actively engaging and interacting with its pluricultural environment. The language myth of the ‘ideal native speaker’ or the ‘perfectly balanced bilingual’ is starting to lose ground. The notion of evolving competences, that is learning that manifests greater efficiency at one or two modes of communication, ex. interaction and mediation instead of production and reception, is gaining ground. Natural communication is emphasised where speakers are concerned not with the form of the utterances but with messages being conveyed and understood. There is an ever-growing awareness that pertaining to strict linguistic boundaries among languages is unrealistic and futile. On the contrary, an awareness of the lexical and syntactical similarities and differences can be a powerful tool for learning, and prior knowledge of another language is seen as a valuable resource.
To sum up, a plurilingual education fosters linguistic awareness, and values languages and their varieties irrespective of the linguistic hierarchy imposed on them by society. It supports an awareness of the ability to transfer skills from the knowledge of one language to learn another, which in turn fosters respect for other plurilinguals. It encourages respect for cultural differences and identities that come with knowing or speaking a language. It promotes intercultural interaction and intercultural education, and a globally integrated approach to language teaching and learning in curriculum in schools.