Multilingual is normal

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Oh Lithuania, my fatherland

Today is the International Day of Multilingualism.

The date has not been chosen at random: 27 March, 196 BC, is the date mentioned on the famous multilingual Rosetta Stone. The stone is engraved with a decree in three scripts: hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Ancient Greek, and was instrumental in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To celebrate the International Day of Multilingualism, I am starting a series under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

The first example comes from Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), which I read in a wonderful English translation by Nicholas de Lange.

That’s how Oz describes his family, which came to Israel from Eastern Europe.

Books filled our home. My father could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: Shto s toboi?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami! – What’s the matter with you? You can see the boy’s right here!) Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.

The picture above is taken in Vilnius, Lithuania, a place frequently mentioned in Oz’ novel, since his father’s family originated there. Speaking multiple languages was common in the region at the time. The monument to Adam Mickiewicz, a great Polish poet, who lived part of his life in Lithuania, reminds us of this linguistic diversity.