Think Like a Linguist helps students aged 12-13 to make informed choices about languages at GCSE, through a course of five interactive sessions with their peers, language professionals, university students, and recent languages graduates. Each session focuses on a different aspect of language learning, and enables students to consider the question, What does it mean to think like a linguist? from a unique perspective.
Throughout the programme, the young participants are treated as active linguists. Each session focuses on what the students can already do, and where this could take them. “Thinking like a linguist” is presented as a mindset, rather than a skillset.
Chris Dobbs, Head of Academic Enrichment at Hollingworth Academy and Director of OxNet Youth Scholars at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, commented:
We are delighted to host the project Think Like a Linguist. Engaging pupils in language learning from a variety of perspectives will we believe promote greater cultural awareness, develop a love for language study and help to develop resilience and self-confidence. The contributions made by visiting academics and their former students help to demystify the experience and enhance the value of studying languages at university level.
The pilot programme is running in six schools in the North West of England, hosted by Hollingworth Academy, Rochdale. Careful evaluation of the pilot will produce recommendations on how universities can best support language learners and teachers at schools, and best practice for increasing the uptake of modern foreign languages at GCSE. The partners will build on the evaluation to roll the programme out in areas of the UK where the uptake of languages is very low.
The pilot began with a launch event at Hollingworth Academy, Rochdale in January 2023 and will close with a graduation event at either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge in autumn 2023. 30 students from six schools in the North West are involved, all currently in year 8 and studying French or Spanish. Participating students report back to their peers via school assemblies, and parents/guardians are invited to join the launch event and final graduation event.
26th September marks the European Day of Languages, an event which has been celebrated every year since 2001 by the Council of Europe and European Commission.
The day is designed to celebrate and promote linguistic and cultural diversity across Europe, a continent which is home to 24 official languages, but in which over 200 languages are actually spoken!
The European Centre for Modern Languages (Council of Europe) have put together some fantastic resources for the occasion, which can be used in the classroom, at home, or just for personal enjoyment! These range from posters to challenges to jokes and quotes. You can have a look for yourself here.
We particularly love these posters which show some amazing facts about languages in Europe and across the world! They are also available in various languages at the link above.
What will you do to celebrate European Day of Languages 2022? You could:
Watch a foreign-language film (with subtitles)
Read a book or article in a foreign language or in translation
Learn a few phrases of a new language
Send a message to a friend in another language and see how they respond!
Try/cook some food from another culture that has always intrigued you
Have a look at the resources we’ve linked to above!
Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.
If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture.We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.
You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.
The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.
2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.
However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.
2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.
years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish
prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford
with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other
Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his
will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic
language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur
philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement.
Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one
of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005).
Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the
celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could
have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in
When preparing for the talk and asking
our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I
came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the
Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could
ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston
Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of
the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including
his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny
from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and
Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed
Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:
The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!
With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):
These memories had clearly left him pained,
He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last
To a great room that had been in the past
A hall of mirrors; now all you could see
Were empty frames and windows. A gallery
Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes
In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,
When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.
Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.
Dr Kasia Szymańska
Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.
Polish literature bibliography
Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956
Foer, Jonathan Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965
Greg, Wioletta Swallowing mercury Translated by Eliza Marciniak London: Portobello books, 2017
Kochanowski, Jan Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak,
Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986
Krasicki, Ignacy Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947
Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992
Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988
Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986
Lem, Stanislaw Solaris Warsaw: Agora, 2008
Mickiewicz, Adam Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852
Mickiewicz, Adam Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968
Mickiewicz, Adam Dziady Wrocław, 1864
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834
Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983
Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960
Prus, Boleslaw The doll Translated by David Welsh New York: New York Review, 2011
Prus, Boleslaw Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach Warsaw: PIW, 1972
Schulz, Bruno The street of crocodiles London: Pan books, 1980
Schulz, Bruno Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994
Tokarczuk, Olga Flights Translated by Jennifer Croft London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
This post was written by Sally Zacahrias, a lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow, and originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is an AHRC-funded project investigating the creative dimension of languages – extending from cognition and production through to performance, texts and translation to language learning.
The year 2019 will be remembered by
some as the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. It has been for Moon
enthusiasts the chance not only to reflect on Armstrong’s first steps
but also what the Moon means to them on a more personal level. The Moon
has been compared to a mirror that reflects our passions and beliefs.
As Philip Morton in ‘The Moon. A history for the future’ wrote:
…what people see when they
look at the Moon is indeed, for the most part a reflection of themselves
– of their preoccupations and theories, their dreams and fears. It has
been used for such reflection, or projection in science and fiction
alike (Morton 2019:20).
These Moon celebrations also
provided me with an opportunity to explore what the Moon meant to people
of different cultural and language backgrounds. The Moon is a powerful
lens for understanding and comparing different cultures as, firstly, it
features so strongly in all cultures and, secondly, it has come to
symbolise many everyday concepts (love, friendship, beauty, time) that
are shared between members of different cultural groups.
Culture can be thought of as a
set of shared ways to frame concepts that characterise groups of people
and often these understandings are reflected in the metaphors used by
people belonging to those cultural groups. When linguists talk about
metaphors they mean that they describe one thing in terms of another, so
‘The Moon is made of cheese’ is an example of a metaphor. The surface
of the Moon (which is strange and a bit abstract) is being compared to a
cheese with holes in it. One way to find out what the Moon means to
people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is to look at
the various Moon idioms they use, a specific type of metaphorical
expression. Here are some examples that I have collected as part of this
Abstract concept associated with the Moon
être dans la lune
to be in the Moon
head in the clouds
spadł z księżyca
to fall from the Moon
er lebt hinter dem Mond
he lives behind the Moon
he has no idea what’s going on in the world
irrationality/ strange behaviour
I love you to the Moon and back
to love someone very much
oli mumanzi nka kwezi
you’re as brave as the Moon
bravery/ emotional strength
many Moons ago
a long time ago
the moon is dark bright round and missing a piece
to say life is uncertain, not all plain sailing
full Moon/ Moon of 14
During the summer, I and a team of science and language students from
the School of Education at University of Glasgow ran a couple of
workshops, ‘Stories and Science of the Moon’, for families as part of
the Glasgow Science Festival. One activity involved asking family
members what they thought each of these Moon idioms meant. I showed them
the idiom in the original language and its literal translation.
Interestingly, although the participants said they didn’t know the
language about 70% of the answers were correct!
One plausible explanation for this is that many of these idioms are
based on what we call ‘embodied’ metaphors. These are when mental images
that we have developed through our interaction with the physical world
are used to understand more abstract concepts. So, ‘I love you to the
Moon and back’ is based on the image of a long distance representing the
intensity of a feeling. These embodied metaphors are thought to be
understood across almost all languages and cultures. So, when trying to
understand an unfamiliar expression, such as an unknown idiom, we use
these embodied metaphors as sense-making resources.
During the workshop, we also explored how narratives and images of the
Moon from around the world have changed our perspective of how we
understand the universe and our place in it. For example, we looked at
how Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer-mathematician, wrote about
travelling to the Moon in ‘Somnium – the Dream’ in 1609, considered by
many to be the first ever piece of science fiction. The story was
written in Latin, at a time when people thought that the Earth was at
the centre of the universe. However, Kepler believed differently. By
telling a story in which a boy and his mother are taken to the Moon by
the moon spirit, and by using the Moon as an analogy of the Earth,
Kepler was able to change people’s perspectives of what they normally
take for granted. Seeing the everyday through a different image,
narrative or language can really transform our sense of reality!
We also explored how almost every civilisation has used the Moon to
govern daily life. Its regular phases and movements have been used for
calendrical purposes to mark time in many cultures. Ancient time was
both measured by the phases of the Moon but it was also the measure of
our activities: certain behaviours were assigned to particular phases of
the Moon. This can be still seen today in certain religious and
cultural festivals that are orchestrated by the Moon, for example,
Easter, Ramadan and the Chinese Moon festival.
To explore how the Moon features in people’s lives today at a more
individual level, and to discover what the Moon means to people from
different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I have interviewed a
number of families, all living in Glasgow, over a period of six months.
The families spoke either Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or English: some of
the languages that make up Glasgow’s vibrant linguistic landscape. I
have been looking at how the family members use metaphor to talk about
time, and other abstract concepts, in relation to the Moon. We tend to
think that time is a universal concept, experienced the same way by
everyone. However, my data shows that people’s conceptions of time, when
talking about the Moon, vary in interesting and subtle ways depending
on their cultural background, the stories and books they’ve read, the
languages they speak and their age.
This study shows that although we all share and know the Moon,
different cultures and languages have responded to the Moon in
contrasting ways. Understanding this diversity allows for a more
complete picture of what makes us human, and how we through our
different languages relate to our natural world.
A special thank you to all my language enthusiasts who have been part
of this project’s creation: Dangeni, Rui He, Nourah Alshalhoub, Heba
Elmaraghi, Idris Al Adawi, Agnieszka Uflewska, Aneta Marren, Annette
Islei, Colin Reilly, and to the families I interviewed!
In late November, Oxford welcomed the writer Ari Gautier and his translator into English, Prof. Blake Smith, for a discussion about Francophone Indian Literature and about Gautier’s writing in particular. Part of the ‘World Literatures’ strand of the Creative Multilingualism programme, this event was convened by Prof. Jane Hiddleston and Sheela Mahadevan. Here we reflect on a few highlights…
Currently based in Oslo, Ari Gautier spent his childhood in
former French colony Pondichéry, India. He is the author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, two novels which creatively
intersperse Tamil, Hindi, Créole and English with French, reflecting the
multilingual identities of those living in Pondichéry. His works give an
insight into the impact of the French rule on the lives of Pondichéry citizens,
their constantly vacillating identities, the multicultural aspect of the city,
the Indian caste system, and the history of Pondichéry.
The ‘World Literatures’ strand of Creative Multilingualism
is interested in texts where multiple languages brush up against one another,
prompting questions about the boundaries of what a language is. This research
wants to explore how worldliness and cultural transfer is present within a text
from the moment of its inception, and how multilingualism speaks to
multiculturalism. The research aims to expose interactions between different
languages within a text, not just by examining the different languages in which
a text is written, but also seeking out the traces of other languages through
allusions to them or even by the notable absence of certain languages in a
text. Gautier’s novels, with their interspersing of at least five languages, therefore
seem like a perfect fit.
Prof. Smith gave a useful overview of the status of Francophone Indian Literature. To begin with, he acknowledged that it’s not necessarily something the general English reader will be aware of. When we think of Francophonie, we perhaps automatically think of certain countries in West Africa, Canada, or French-speaking East Asia or Oceania. However, France had a colonial presence in India from the seventeenth century. That said, Francophone Indian Literature was only really published from the late nineteenth century onwards and, during the twentieth century, French acted as a secondary language for many writers who were primarily writing in other languages. Academic interest in the French colonial legacy within Indian writing is fairly recent, and Prof. Smith recommended an anthology of Francophone Indian short stories for anyone who wishes to explore further: Écriture indienne d’expression française, edited by Vijaya Rao (Yoda Press & La Reunion par Le GERM, 2008).
The panel then turned to a discussion of how multilingualism operates within Gautier’s writing. Here is an extract from Gautier’s novel, Le Thinnai:
— Gilbert, va m’acheter un Suruttu à la boutique. Il te reste encore de la monnaie, n’est-ce pas ? Voyant Gilbert fouiller désespérément ses poches, mon père lui dit d’aller chez Karika Bhai et d’acheter un paquet de Suruttus sur son compte. — Oh, je suis à la retraite depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. J’ai fait le strict nécessaire sous les drapeaux pour pouvoir bénéficier de la retraite et je suis retourné au pays, répondit mon père après s’être allumé une cigarette. — Pourquoi vous n’y êtes pas resté ? Vous ne vous plaisiez pas en métropole ? — Ce n’est pas une question de s’y plaire ou pas. J’avais juste envie de revenir parmi les miens. Même si je m’étais fondé une famille là-bas, il me paraissait tout à fait naturel de rentrer chez moi. — Mais la France, c’est aussi chez vous ! Vous êtes citoyen français. Papa laissa échapper une bouffée de fumée ; il tapotait la cigarette sur le bord du cendrier et parut réfléchir. — Oui, je suis français. Mais je suis indien en même temps. C’est ici que je suis né, mes ancêtres sont d’ici. Mes racines sont là. Même si j’ai vécu en métropole pendant quelque temps, il m’a paru normal de rentrer chez moi. Il n’y a aucune différence entre moi et un Breton ou un Normand qui aurait envie de retourner chez lui après avoir passé du temps en dehors de sa région natale. Sauf que moi, c’est un peu plus loin… Il marqua un temps d’arrêt pour tirer une bouffée. Mais vous connaissez aussi bien que moi l’histoire de notre pays ; surtout, l’histoire de Pondichéry. Ma famille est française depuis deux générations et je fus le premier à partir en métropole. Jusqu’ici nous n’avions que le statut de Français sur les documents ; mais nous étions profondément indiens. Enfin, nous le sommes toujours. Comment pouvez-vous vous sentir français, sans avoir jamais mis les pieds dans ce pays. Mes parents viennent d’un milieu modeste et n’ont pas eu accès ni à la langue ni à la culture française. L’univers français nous était totalement étranger. La seule chose qui nous rapprochait des Européens était le culte de la religion catholique. À part ça, nous vivions dans deux mondes différents. Notre allégeance à la France se trouvait enfermée dans une vieille malle en ferraille dans l’espoir qu’un jour, un des descendants l’ouvrirait et utiliserait ce morceau de papier. Pendant longtemps, nous ne fûmes pas considérés comme citoyens français ; nous n’étions que des sujets de la nation. —Mais, toute ces années passées dans l’armée française n’ont pas su éveiller en vous un sentiment d’appartenance à ce pays ? Mon père écrasa la cigarette au fond du cendrier et se versa une nouvelle rasade. Il se leva pour aller servir le vieil homme et vint s’asseoir sur le petit thinnai. Il tenait le verre de whisky dans sa main droite et regardait les bulles de soda qui remontaient à la surface du verre. Il reprit la parole en se passant la main gauche sur les cheveux d’avant en arrière ; geste qu’il avait l’habitude de faire quand il réfléchissait longuement. — Je ne connais pas votre histoire, l’ancien, mais vous avez l’air de quelqu’un qui connaît la vie. Vivre en exil est une énorme malédiction. Certes, mon éloignement fut volontaire ; mais à mon époque, nous n’avions pas beaucoup de choix. Partir était le seul moyen d’échapper à une vie indigente. Nos parents et grands-parents qui avaient opté pour la nationalité française avaient fait de nous une génération d’immigrés dans notre pays qui était la France. Indigènes de la nation, nos vies n’ont connu que les tranchées, les coups de feu et les rations militaires. Inconscients et aveugles ignorants, nous sommes partis combattre nos frères malgaches, indochinois et algériens. À aucun moment, la notion que nous étions coupables de complicité involontaire aux massacres d’un pouvoir colonial ne nous a effleurés. Nous nous battions contre des ennemis de notre Mère patrie. Nous en étions fiers. Mais malgré notre fidélité envers elle, l’idée du retour fut plus instinctive. Après tout, nous n’étions que des indigènes des Troupes Coloniales ; la France n’a jamais été notre patrie. Cet attachement ambivalent que nous avons envers elle est une anomalie de l’histoire.
And here it is
in Prof. Smith’s English translation:
“Gilbert, go buy me a suruttu at the shop. You still have money, don’t you?” Watching Little Gilbert fumble despairingly in his pockets, my father told him to buy a suruttu from Karika Bhai, and add it to the soldier’s account. “Oh, I’ve been retired for twelve years now. I did the absolute minimum to earn my pension, and now I’m back.” My father answered, lighting a cigarette. “Why didn’t you stay? You didn’t like it in France?” “It wasn’t a question of liking it or not. I just wanted to come back to my own people. Even if I started a family there, it seemed natural to come back home.” “But France, that’s home too! You’re a French citizen.” My father exhaled a puff of smoke. He tapped the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and seemed to think it over. “Oh, I’m French. But Indian, too. I was born here. So were my ancestors. My roots are here. And after spending some time outside their own province, even a Breton or a Norman wants to go home. It’s the same with me. But my home is a little farther… you must know the history of Pondicherry as well as I do. My family has been French for generations, but I was the first one to go to France. Until then we were just paper Frenchmen; really we were Indians. Really we still are. How can you feel French, if you’ve never set foot there? My parents came from nothing; they didn’t know French or French culture. The only thing that connected us to the Europeans was the church. Besides that, it was two different worlds.” “But all those years in the French army, didn’t they make you feel like you were part of the nation?” My father crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and poured another drink. He got up to fill the old man’s glass and sat back down. He held his whisky in his right hand, watching the soda bubbles rise to the surface. He ran his left hand through his hair, which he always did when he had to think hard about something. “I don’t know your story, old one, but you seem like you know a thing or two about life. Living in exile is a curse. Sure, I chose it, but back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Leaving was the only way out of poverty. Trenches, gunshots, and rations, that was all we knew. We fought our brothers in Madagascar, Indochina and Algeria. We never thought we might be guilty of anything. We felt nothing, saw nothing, understood nothing. We fought the enemies of the motherland. We were proud. But in spite of our faithful service, we wanted to come home. We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk of history.”
of French culture and how far it can coexist alongside an Indian identity is
central to this passage, a fact that is emphasised and complicated by the fact
that the novel is written largely in French. But, of course, this passage is
not entirely in French. What about that reference to a suruttu? A suruttu is a
cigar, what we would call in English a ‘cheroot’, from the French cheroute, which itself comes from the
Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu/suruttu. In this way, a single word, referring
to an everyday item, can illuminate a complicated multilingual interaction.
the reference to the Tamil word thinnai
is an example of what we might think of as an untranslatable word. A thinnai is
a raised platform built adjacent to the main entrance of a house. It is common
in Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. Traditionally, it was a place
where elders could rest to talk to neighbours and friends, and where strangers
could stop for respite when passing through the town. Thus, in a text written
mostly in French we see how a reference to another language can evoke a whole
set of cultural values – hospitality, community, conversation. The porous
borders between languages can facilitate and reveal the coexistence of multiple
talked about his own multilingual background, explaining that he spoke French
with his father but Tamil with his uncle. Growing up in Pondicherry, he said
that every street seemed to have its own language and he moved around a lot:
his universe evolved with languages. When asked about the fact that his first
novel included footnotes to explain Tamil words to non-Tamil speakers, but his
second novel did not, Gautier confirmed that this was a deliberate decision.
Footnotes could be seen as a form of linguistic colonisation – an attempt to
make the Tamil words fit more comfortably within a French-language text. By
deciding not to explain the Tamil in his second novel, Gautier refused to
compromise Tamil. He said that using footnotes made him feel alien to his own
The wide-ranging discussion moved on to cover many aspects of Gautier’s writing, including its cinematic quality, the role of received memory in constructing his narratives and the question of mythology. While we don’t have room to touch on all those topics here, we will end by mentioning one further question that was raised, and which again highlights the porous potentiality of multilingualism: the use of Creole in Gautier’s novels.
Le Thinnai includes a character called
Lourdes, a servant who speaks in Creole. One of the important roles Creole
plays in a novel written largely in French is to recognise a community that has
been overlooked. Gautier explained that in Pondicherry there is a problematic
hierarchy between what is known as ‘haut-créole’ and ‘bas-créole’. Someone who
is ‘haut-créole’ is of mixed French and Indian descent, whereas someone who is ‘bas-créole’
is not of French descent but nonetheless speaks a creolised form of French. The
character Lourdes is ‘bas-créole’. She insists that she speaks French but other
characters think she is speaking in Creole. The inclusion of Creole in this
novel therefore performs the difficulties of thinking about translingualism:
how far is it a language in its own right? How far is it a corrupted form of
French? Might we think of it as an enhanced form of French?
These are just a few of the questions raised by the notion of multilingualism and translingualism in World Literatures. You can dig a little deeper into Francophone Indian literature by reading Prof. Smith’s piece ‘Indian Literature speaks French‘ or follow Ari Gautier on Twitter.
This week on the blog we bring you another career profile from one of our recent graduates. Ellie, who studied French at St Anne’s College, now works as an actor in London. Acting is, perhaps, not a career many of us would automatically associate with Modern Languages. However, did you know that many famous actors are multilingual? As well as speaking English, Jodie Foster, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bradley Cooper, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all speak French. Colin Firth speaks fluent Italian, Gwyneth Paltrow speaks Spanish, and Sandra Bullock speaks German. Meanwhile, some actors speak a whole range of languages: Natalie Portman (Hebrew, German, Spanish, Japanese); Viggo Mortensen (Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Norwegian, Swedish); Penélope Cruz (Italian, Spanish). And these are to name just a few!
Ellie tells us how languages are giving her a boost when it comes to a career in acting…
Name: Ellie Shaw
Profession: Actor and Singer
Studied: French sole, 2012-2016
After graduating with a degree in French in 2016, I trained as an actor and singer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I earned an MA. I’m now building my career as an actor in London, and I also currently work at the Tate Modern and the Barbican Centre. When I initially undertook my actor training I never thought languages would be immediately useful, but countless directors and my agent have all really emphasised the utility of having foreign languages at hand. As an actress in London it makes me stand out. In fact, I just wrapped a short film where I was speaking French and I’m about to do a self-tape for my agent for an audition for a feature set in France; fluent French is a must for this role. Indirectly, learning a foreign language and going on a year abroad equips you with the kind of confidence to get any job you want – for me, it’s standing on stage or in front of a panel making a fool of yourself fearlessly. You learn to process written information more quickly and understand nuances in communication more effectively. It’s also – most importantly – part of my long-running campaign to marry Timothee Chalamet.
Ellie is currently starring as Daisy Buchanan in the immersive theatre show The Great Gatsby.
Bonus… Here’s a video of Viggo Mortensen speaking seven languages!
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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