Saturday, 7 September 2013

Multilingual dreams and nightmares


Multilingual nightmares can take many forms. Children, for example, may be discouraged from using their languages, in the name of resilient myths equating linguistic health with monolingualism; parents intent on raising their children multilingually may agonise over recommended enforcement of monolingual home language policies; and people (and places) that we’ve adopted and wish to cherish as our own may suddenly turn hostile because we unwittingly cause offence by using the languages we’re used to using.

Rather less disquietingly, some of us may find ourselves uttering fluent gobbledygook when attempting to speak language X, while actually speaking language Y in X: the other day, after an intensive English-only week, I heard myself asking Mas ela não fez isso, fez ela?, complete with falling intonation on the tag, in what I thought was Portuguese. I did realise it wasn’t, and I also realised that my Portuguese must at the time have been yawning away its drowsiness after the week-long nap during which I had had no need for it.

All good: such glitches are evidence of the natural tidal motions which regulate our use of our languages, and of which we are more or less conscious. But it is also true that we may wake up in the morning in irresistible language-bound moods, which lie beyond our control and whose compulsion suggests that our languages don’t necessarily go to sleep when we do. We may well dream about our languages, but do they otherwise take part in our sleeping activities? Namely, do we dream in them?

Dreams, good and bad, have regularly intrigued us as tell-tale reflections of what we are when we’re not in control of what we are, on the assumption that selves on the loose are our real selves. On the further assumption that multilinguals are in fact monolinguals in disguise, only one of our languages can apparently mirror our multilingual selves. Questions like In which language do you dream?, part of a rich battery of like-minded FAQs addressed to multilinguals, attest to this view.

The problem is that if we accept that languages mirror selves, then we must also accept that all languages of a multilingual do so, because multilinguals routinely use all of their languages – or they wouldn’t have need for them. If what matters to us, in turn, naturally came to matter via our engagement with different languages, it must follow that our expression of our selves reflects that engagement, whether we’re awake or asleep. I, for one, can confirm that members of my family who talk in their sleep (while, presumably, dreaming), me included, indeed do so in different languages.

An alternative take to how multilinguals dream has it that multilinguals can in fact dream in more than one language, but only if those languages are well developed. That is, dreaming in a language is a reliable gauge of proficiency in that language. The problem is that there is no evidence supporting this claim. Jessica Sicard and Kees de Bot make this point in their article ‘Multilingual dreaming’, and conclude that factors such as the length of our engagement with the environments in which we use a language play a role in triggering dreams in that language.

What to say, then, of the meaning of multilingual dreams? Dream analysis assigns an interpretation to what a dreamer dreamed, and must likewise proceed in tongues because analysts use languages, too. The dreamer reports dream contents in some language, preferably one which the analyst shares – which may or may not be the one(s) in which the dreamer dreamed, or the one(s) best suited to express what the dream was all about. The analyst then attributes meaning to what the dreamer reported, also in some language. This (bad) dream, for example, got interpreted in Spanish:

Image ©: Francisco Goya (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem is that different languages represent meanings in different ways, because meanings associate with cultures. Dream analysis traditionally makes use of symbols, analogies, metaphors, whose interpretation does not necessarily match across languages. If, say, I dreamed of snakes last night (or owls, or bats, or feline creatures), did I have a good dream or a nightmare? The decision may rest entirely on how the dreamers’ culture and the culture of their dream analysts symbolise snakes (or owls, or bats, and so on).

Next time, I’ll deal with numbers, which don’t seem to be as open to cultural interpretation as dreams, but which also rank high on the list of FAQs-to-nag-multilinguals-with: “In which language do you count?”


© MCF 2013

Next post: Numbers and languages. Saturday 5th October 2013.

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