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More Than One Language

I don’t know what “one’s own” means and I’d like to begin with a different question: What is a maternal language? I will then try to understand what happens when you speak more than one language, when you speak several different languages, and how these different languages ultimately draw out different worlds; not incompatible worlds, not radically different worlds, but worlds in resonance with one another and without ever being able to match up completely. This is why we will have to ask how we go from one language to another and think about what we call translation.

I will wonder about this on the basis of what I know, on the basis of the heart of my trade. I am a philosopher. The term “philosopher” comes directly from Ancient Greek and means someone who loves wisdom. This is what a few Greeks called themselves a long time ago, in the fifth century BC, twenty-six centuries ago. These Greeks declared that they were called philosophers, and in that they were being much less pretentious than you might think because they said they loved wisdom and not that they were wise. They were not “sophers” but “philosophers.” The love of wisdom can bring about the birth of certain questions: Why speak another language? What is a language? And what is a maternal language?

Let’s start with the first question. The maternal language is Mom’s language, it can also be Dad’s, and they are not necessarily the same one. It’s the language we speak, in which our birth is bathed, the language that surrounds us at home, with our family. Already in our mother’s belly, we hear sounds that start a long process of habituation made from the sequence of the songs we are sung to make us fall asleep when we are infants and the stories we are told later on. This is the singularity of the maternal language. A certain number among you perhaps have two maternal languages, not because you have two mothers but because the language of your mother or of your father is not the same one. Or else because the language your family speaks and in which you bathe is immediately linked to or in competition with (I’m not sure how to put it) the language of the country they find themselves in, the one spoken to you and that you perhaps already speak at home, with your brothers and sisters, and if not, after a short while, outside the house, at the nursery, at school.

Speaking two languages is never easy, but it is an opportunity. It allows you to avoid falling prey to an illusion that, in my opinion, is very dangerous, one the Greeks cultivated. They imagined that only one language, their own, truly existed. They named it with a word: logos. Everybody else, anyone that didn’t speak like them, were “barbarians,” people who say “blah blah blah,” something the Greeks could not understand. You know what onomatopoeias are, “crack,” “splash,” “boom.” “Barbarian” is the noise of people designated by their noise-making—an incomprehensible noise for the Greeks, who did not understand it and did not seek to understand it. Logos, in contrast, signifies “language” in Greek, but also “reason.” Aristotle, one of the first Greek philosophers, defines man as an animal endowed with logos, an animal that speaks-and-thinks. The Greeks therefore suppose that the language they speak is the same thing as reason, that Greek is the language of reason, of intelligence, the only possible language, and that anything else does not actually exist. The rest isn’t even a language. The Greeks spoke the logos, in other words the language that makes up humanity, culture, rationality, so much so that the Greeks were not sure the barbarians were human. In any case, as barbarians, as blabbering, there was room for doubt. Imagining that only one language exists, the one you speak, sets a terrible divide into place. This means that the others perhaps do not really speak, may not be human, or at any rate are not human like you. This is why I say that being bilingual is an opportunity, because it provides a chance for understanding and feeling that there are several languages. The first thing to bear in mind when you want to think the maternal language is that it is one language, one language among other possible languages, one language among others, even if each one is magnificently singular.

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