The Multilingual Self : An Inquiry into Language Learning

September 1998 — Volume 3, Number 3

The Multilingual Self : An Inquiry into Language Learning

Natasha Lvovich (1997)
Foreword by Sarah Benesch
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xi + 106
ISBN 0-8058-2320-4 (paper)
US $16.50

Pick up this book, examine the cover, and you will probably get the initial impression that it is a fairly theoretical study of language acquisition. That impression begins on the front cover with the book’s subtitle; turn the book over, and from the extracts from reviews on the back leap phrases such as “language and culture acquisition,” “approach for understanding the process of language acquisition,” “language learning and immigration,” “connections . . . between teaching and learning.” Admittedly, a more careful reading of the reviews gives a hint as to the actual nature of the book, but one key word is conspicuous by its total absence: autobiography.

For if it is not exactly an autobiography in the normal sense of the word, The Multilingual Self is certainly autobiographical in character. What keeps it from being a conventional “story of my life” is that as a purely chronological account, it would be somewhat fragmentary. The author’s life is viewed through her language learning experiences–or rather, her language learning is viewed in the context of the events and experiences of her life. That leaves no room for conventional accounts of events such as “how I met my husband.” Instead, the writer aims to explain the background events which led to her learning various foreign languages to a high level of competence, and to demonstrate the differences between those language learning experiences.

A member of a middle-class intellectual Jewish family, Natasha Lvovich grew up in the antisemitic society of the Soviet Union of the 1960s and 70s. She sought refuge from the identity problems inherent in being both a Soviet citizen and a Jew by adopting a new and exotic culture for herself–she assumed a French identity, submerging herself in the language and culture of a country that she never expected to see. But life had unexpected twists and turns in store for Natasha Lvovich; not only was she able to visit France during the days of Glasnost, but finally she and her family were able to leave the Soviet Union altogether. A six-month transit stay in Italy, waiting for the all-important American immigration papers, gave her a new culture to relate to, and a reason to learn Italian. Finally the family reached America, the land of their dreams. The shock Natasha experienced on discovering the harsh realities of life as an immigrant to America was reflected in the initial difficulties she felt in learning English; her final success was closely linked, [-1-] she believes, to her success in embracing her new country despite her difficulties in coming to terms with life there.

If their aim was to attract casual buyers, perhaps the publishers were right not to stress the autobiographical aspect of the book on its cover. Who, after all, would think they might want to read the autobiography of a person they had never heard of? What language teacher would want to read the story of another language teacher’s life? Not me, I think I would have said; my own life is enough of a challenge, without my having to get involved in someone else’s. Perhaps many teachers would feel something similar. And as a consequence, I–and they–might have missed a book that in some ways is rather special. There are aspects of this work that kept me reading through to the end–long after I had discovered that I had originally misjudged its true nature–and which have stayed with me since finishing it.

As an exploration of language learning theory, it must be said, the book achieves little, despite the indications on the cover. It is based on a doctoral thesis which apparently consisted of both autobiographical accounts of language learning experiences and theoretical material based on these experiences; in this version the theory has been entirely stripped away, leaving a series of episodes or (in the author’s word) “stories.” To some extent, one can fill in the theory again for oneself; Lvovich’s learning experiences are related in a manner which seems tailor-made to illustrate Schumann’s acculturation theory (1976, 1978), Lambert and Gardner’s view that integrative motivation is more effective in aiding language learning than purely instrumental motivation (1972), and Krashen’s derivative concept of the affective filter (1985). However, the wider application of these theories on the basis of this one example of learning appears questionable, since Lvovich seems to be such an exceptionally gifted language learner. At one point, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of her mind: Chapter 2 explores the writer’s “synesthesia,” her manner of associating every word in every language with colours or feelings: “In English, six is whitish, fuzzy, dull glass; in French, creamy in color and substance. In French, Lundi is pale wax pink; in Russian, Ponedel’nik is grayish and dull; and Monday is in orange-red-brown gamma. I could give this type of characteristic to every word, sound, syllable, expression in every language I know. . . . When I began learning English in college, I had a hard time memorizing the days of the week. They seemed colorless and all similar until the day when I started consciously thinking about their colors, and they finally appeared bright and all differentiated. It was like the black-and-white movie suddenly became multicolored, gaining a system of meaning with it” (p. 12). For those who perhaps vaguely associate just a few words with textures, as I do, this description of multicolored language offers a vivid idea of what goes on in the mind of someone who thinks and perceives linguistic concepts totally differently. But such explicit insights into the writer’s thinking [-2-] and learning processes come disappointingly rarely in the book. The reader will also search in vain for much explicit discussion in the area of teaching methodology; while few might argue with the view that “the best results come from a happy combination of all methods, approaches, and types of activities, depending on each particular group of students, their learning style, attitudes, motivation, educational background, and exposure to other languages and cultures” (p. 67), they might perhaps hope for more guidance on such choice of the best methods other than being told of the value of developing the necessary “intuition.”

What this book does have to offer will depend on the reader. Lvovich suggests that her “stories” might appeal to advanced ESL learners, who might be encouraged through them to explore their own learning experiences, and, further, to take heart from her success in what to many would seem the impossible task of achieving near-native linguistic skills. As a rather poor language learner myself, I have my doubts about the degree to which one might feel encouraged by Lvovich’s language learning feats; I can be awed by her talents, but don’t feel I could ever aspire to emulate her achievements.

However, I can certainly accept Lvovich’s story as a demonstration of the importance of motivation in language learning, and an illustration of the way in which non-acceptance of the culture to which a language relates can be a huge hindrance to learning that language; and this message might indeed be conveyed successfully to others, learners and teachers alike, by the book. Advanced learners might also simply enjoy reading sections of the book as “stories” to which they can relate to a greater or lesser degree. This will be especially true of students who have had the experience of immigration to America.

For me as a teacher, the book does stimulate some thoughts about teaching–not so much through Lvovich’s description of herself as a language learner as through her insightful description of other Russian immigrants in America battling with both a language and a culture that they find alien and fearful. For the same reasons, it strikes a chord with my thinking about immigration in general. Anyone whose work involves helping people who have to settle in a new country will find some points of interest in the book.

But I think I got most out of this book simply as a general reader, treating Lvovich’s book as an account, a very well-written account, of experiences of learning and living which are more dramatic than any I have ever had to cope with, but which I can understand and empathise with, and finally marvel at. I believe Lvovich’s main achievements in life probably lie not in her outstanding language learning ability, nor in her academic successes, but in her emotional survival of both her childhood in the Soviet Union and her adult transition to life in America. In reading this book, one is able to understand something of what was involved in all this. [-3-] Lvovich’s father’s whole existence was horribly shaken by emigration; he seems to have been traumatised by it, to have never enjoyed happiness after leaving his home country. Her eldest daughter, like other adolescent children who move from one country to another, also suffered–but she finally made the transition successfully, as do most other children of her age. “She does not read much. She does not seem to have any intellectual interests. But she is okay” (p. 104). Natasha Lvovich herself struggled, and finally feels she has made it. Though she does not suffer from false modesty (she describes her defence of her MA thesis as “brilliant” (p. 35), and her French as being “without the slightest accent” (p. 28)), her life as recounted in this book does not come across as being one long triumph–her satisfaction in finally learning to drive comes because that mundane skill, that vital part of cultural assimilation into America, seems to have been so much more of a battle for her than learning any language, and we can share her delight that on the road she now feels “almost relaxed” (p. 82).

The Multilingual Self is written with an attention to detail that makes it always interesting to read, and at times fascinating. The writing itself is evocative and skillful, retaining just a trace of foreignness that seems to add an extra measure of authenticity to the authorial voice. The result is an intriguing and sometimes moving book which contributes on a variety of levels to our understanding of each other.

References

Gardner, R.C., & Lambert, W.E. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Krashen, S.D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. Harlow: Longman.

Schumann, J.H. (1976). Social distance in second language acquisition. Language Learning, 26, 135-143.

Schumann, J.H. (1978). The acculturation model for second language acquisition. In R.C. Gingras (Ed.), Second language acquisition and foreign language teaching (pp. 27-50). Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Tim Caudery
University of Aarhus, Denmark
<engtc@hum.aau.dk>


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