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Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Bilingual Writers and Colonialism


It’s funny how things go sometimes.

After reading Francois Grosjean’s recent article about Cherishing the Multilingual Heart, I started looking for authors that are multilingual. I have to admit that I didn’t get very far, but I didn’t have to: Francois Grosjean looked as well and he found quite a few amazing bilingual writers.

It’s a compelling list, full of names that are bound to make any multilingual proud, whether they are writing or not.

Most of the writers on the list are European or North American. My wife, upon reading the article immediately started mentioning a half dozen or so authors from her cultural background, the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia). Most of them write in French, a language they acquired at some stage in their lives because their respective countries had been under French occupation.

That made us think further: we reckon it is highly likely that in any country that has a colonial past, there will be a large number of bilingual writers.

It is simply a question of audience: the more people can read you, the better. You can have more readers and spread your ideas more easily, and you can make more money!

And upon close inspection the same seems to apply to the writers on the list Francois Grosjean compiled.

In the case of colonies or former colonies, there is also the aspect of education: while the occupying (Western) population was usually well-educated, a lot of the occupied were not. It must have simply been easier and more rewarding to write for an audience that was used to reading.

The conclusion here is given how Europeans and Americans are only a very small part of the world’s population, it is entirely possible that not just a few authors are writing in a non-native language but maybe a pretty decent number!

And there is more than just money: if you are a member of an oppressed or dying culture and your language is on the brink of extinction, you might find yourself carrying the torch, so to speak, for future generations, and write in the language that could otherwise be lost.

Maybe that is not even an exception. Sometimes finding a good niche is more rewarding then going mainstream.

© 2012, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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