On monolinguals

Learning new languages played a critical role in my education. I like to say that I learned how to think through classical philology, translating Greek texts into French, and reflecting on the distance between those two languages. But it all really started seriously in middle school. Back then, I was playing adventure games, and learning English was the way to explore this passion, and gamer identity. They were text-heavy games – anyone remembers King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, or Leisure Suit Larry? – and none of those were translated. English was also a major subject at school, and I was well-aware that mastery would impact my academic success, and future social positioning.  

Not long ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Facetious but real question to my multicultural friends (and others): are there any (good) program or resources out there to help multilingual migrants (or minorities) help build empathy with monolingual people? As in – what is it like to live with only one language in your brain? How does it affect your vision of the world? What are the associated blindspots? This is for a potential project I’m ideating on. I’m not looking for a rant on how monlinguals are the worst, but rather, ways to genuinely empathise with what it’s like to * not * have multiple languages, which I believe is deeply inconceivable to many multilinguals.” (The project, incidentally, is a new turn in the Marco Polo Project story, supported by a City of Melbourne grant, under the codename ‘migrants to citizen’. Keep posted for more.)

My post attracted interest, and it seems there is no model to build said empathy. One friend though (thanks Armelle du Roscoat!) raised the following question: ‘aren’t multilinguals able to remember how they used to think before they have multiple languages in their head ? What that opened up in them?’ This triggered a new insight. Sure, I can sort of remember what it’s like to be monolingual, but I was a child back then. Learning foreign languages was so central to my education that, at some level, it is inconceivable for me to be an educated adult, who speaks and understands only one language.

Which means, when I think of, or speak with, monolinguals, I have three ways of relating to them. The first is, those are uneducated people. Which is fine, unless they’re in professions and positions that call for education – teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, or any role of responsibility. Then I cringe. The second is more disturbing. I came to realise that I tend to think of monolinguals as radically immature, some sort of monstrous child-like narcissist, trapped in an adult body. Here, there is an odd mixture of repulsion and fascination. But the third mode offers a way out. My multilingual identity, the capacity to shift across languages and cultures, emerged from puberty onwards. I became able to decode various social cues, and adopt my performance, in a form of ‘language-fluidity’. Maybe, monolinguals are just like extremely cis-gender people, who wouldn’t dream of performing beyond received gender-norms – or fall into the worst stereotypes when they try. Sure, it’s a limited take on the world, but I have learned to relate to cisgender types, and I’m on that spectrum myself – so, monolinguals may not be continents away.  

PS: if you know any good resource to build empathy with monolinguals, or would like to work on one, please reach out!

On working for the woman

Today, at a birthday party, I had a short conversation with a guy I hadn’t seen for a while. To my ‘how have you been,’, he replied, ‘you know, working for the man.’ The expression was not entirely familiar, but based on his tone, I interpreted it as unsatisfactory work, submitted to some arbitrary form of authority, with a touch of exploitation. A form of modern slavery, featuring ‘the man’ as master.

Jokingly, I said, ‘it sounds bad, you should try working for the woman instead.’ I couldn’t miss the occasion, and explained how the very morning, I’d been pondering this optimistic paradox. At equivalent levels of competence, men hold higher positions than women. The logical corollary to the sad fact is, for an equivalent position, all odds are that women holding it are more competent than men. And therefore, it’s likely that they’ll make better managers, leaders, or bosses to work under.

I count myself lucky that, since I moved to Australia, almost all the people above me whenever I’ve worked in organisations have been women – and some of my close friends are women in leadership roles. Consistently, they’ve been exceptional.

If I was to think of an optimistic pathway to future work equality – well, here it is: since women leaders are statistically more competent than men at a similar level, let’s assume they’ll form the best teams, deliver the best results, and word will spread. Meanwhile, here’s my encouragement – as much as you can, don’t work for the man, work for the woman.