On Campus

Good Talk: Conversations on the unique bond between language and identity

Reading time: 11 minutes

In the largely multilingual context which we inhabit on the daily, both inside and outside the Bocconi campus, language plays a key role in defining our relationships with others. But language also lives in constant evolution within ourselves. How do we find a new normal in this ever-changing and uniquely intimate reality? Five Tra i Leoni writers reflect on how the languages they speak have distinctly affected their personal identities.

Your English is great!

By Elisa Latora 

I was in my English Literature class when a visiting teaching assistant, on being told that I was Italian, comically glanced back and forth between me and my teacher and pronounced the infamous phrase: “your English is great!” By then, I had been living in the UK on and off for six years. I was top of my class. And my English was, in fact, great(!) But the level of my English shouldn’t have been a matter for debate to begin with. It seemed to me that it was simply normal to have mastered a language that I used on a daily basis to interact with most people other than my family. Nonetheless, this sentence has distinctly stayed with me. It underlined how my claim to a language that had come to feel natural and intensely personal, just like my mother tongue, was still heavily conditioned by other aspects of my identity. It’s symbolic of much of the growing pains that come with learning a new language, how identity and labels are often scrambled in the process, and the confusion that arises in others as much as within ourselves. 

As I first started going to school in the UK and began learning English, I unknowingly developed an (let’s call it eccentric) English accent in my spoken Italian. It luckily faded away in a matter of months. This is something that often happens to kids placed in similar situations; it was, simply put, my first acknowledgement of my changing identity. While I don’t remember much of it, I think it must have been hilarious, and somewhat tragic, to be a ten-something-year old Italian kid involuntarily talking with the same accent as a sunburnt Brit on vacation. Matters regarding my English are and have always been more volatile. I absorbed the way my British friends talked, and at some point I started sounding like them too. That’s not the case now. By large part my British accent has dissolved, and only comes back like an unpredictable friend. Accents can be annoying things in the way they are often outward portrayals of the innermost, perhaps unexplored, characterizing elements of our identities. Sometimes relics of past lives, other times camouflage techniques that end up sticking to our skin: our flawed way of building a new normal. 

Italian and English, the two languages that continue to largely impact my identity through the way I speak, write, and think, tend live in separate corners of my mind. They steal words from each other, take turns in conquering some of the other’s space, in essence, strictly irreconcilable. My friends know that when I’m tired I’ll slip words of the opposite language into my sentences to best preserve the meaning of what I’m saying, instead of doing the much more demanding job of finding the correct translation in the language that I’m speaking. Still when we think of languages we also inevitably think of translations: the magical land where meanings reconcile. 

I stand by the idea that no two languages can ever perfectly overlap through translation. But I’d like to take this notion a little further. It starts with another, more recent story. I was on a plane going back home for the Christmas holidays, when I noticed the person sitting next to me was perhaps more invested than I was in the movie playing on my phone. Now, acting on some outlandish holiday spirit or in a genuine psychotic episode, you choose, I decided to put subtitles on, precisely so that what was being said on screen could be understood. It’s an action that resembled in many ways the feeling of straightforwardly translating my thoughts from one language to another: I can offer the movie with the subtitles, but no audio– handing a stranger one of my headphones would require a lot more festive cheer. 

To a greater degree, given our unique make up of personality, traits, and experiences, even when we are entrusted with similar vocabularies we are still really speaking from our own personal, nonverbal feelings of selfhood. Then, communication is made up of more than the languages bouncing around in our heads. It’s learning how to understand each other, whether that is by sharing with others the language(s) that map the depths of our identities, or by quietly sharing a subtitled movie with a stranger on a plane. That’s the baffling and freeing element of the languages we hold dear. 

The beauty and complexity of bilingual journaling: A personal reflection.

By Daniela Garcet

I’ve been journaling for almost all my life, though not necessarily in a very regular or organized manner I do occasionally find myself jotting down spiraling thoughts in worn out notebooks. Writing can be, and is, therapeutic in and of itself, but even more so is the exercise of re-reading those thoughts years down the line. There is a comforting feeling in reading pages of unhinged inner dialogue that in the end come together to make an archive of past versions of yourself. As you grow older that inner dialogue ages with you. If you were to compare my diary from when I was eleven with my current one, I would not blame you for not being able to tell that it’s the same person behind those words. I myself, the author, at times can barely tell.

Over time my priorities have shifted, my handwriting has changed, but the most obvious of changes would be a clear-cut division in my writing before and after I turned twelve: the year that I learned English.

I moved to the US with an F in English already under my belt; hence, I don’t think I need to explain why up to that point my diaries had been exclusively in my native tongue (Spanish). At some point in time however, my English caught up, and my inner dialogue turned into an even bigger mush of incomprehensible blabber. 

Related:  Tra i Leoni n. 101, December 2022

In my experience, speaking two languages “fluently” does not mean that your skill level in both is equal. There is no overlooking the fact that my academic background has been predominantly English-based. If you asked me to write an academic paper in English and another in Spanish, I have not a doubt in the world that the one in English would be significantly better. However, one’s thoughts are different than university papers, right? 

“What language do you think in?”

It is a question I’ve often heard directed to people that grew up speaking more than one language. Although I imagine that the answer varies according to the person, I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say: who knows? Both? Bilingualism is weird, thoughts transcend language and the ways you choose to express them don’t always match across different tongues. For example, I am currently reading The Process by Frank Kafka in Spanish, and despite having read it in English some years back, it reads as a completely different book. While the plot is the same, scenes and characters reveal themselves differently, as if I were looking into an alternate universe. Wordplay, puns, nuance… there is a limit to the translatability of a text. 

The sentences in my journal will start in one language and end in another. Why? For the same reason that there is no word for “empalaga” in English or for “spoiler” in Spanish. 

If you take into account the fact that each language has millions of expressions and words, many of which have no direct translation, for each language you learn, you open yourself to a completely new world of contexts in which you can manifest yourself in. That is exactly why I find language to be so personal. Not only does it create a pathway to connect with others, to communicate how you love, how you feel, how you think; but it also somehow manages to shape that love and those feelings into something concrete through unlimited boundaries of expression.The writing in my diary has changed throughout my life due to a plethora of reasons, learning a new language is just one of them, but still, it is an important one. I, for one, can’t imagine restricting my thoughts down to one dimension of language, let alone my identity. Because what isn’t more representative of one’s sense of selfhood than the ways in which you are able to express that essence?

Music to my ears (only): Ramblings on the beauty of speaking a little understood language. 
By Sára Kende

I speak Hungarian, what’s your superpower? Well, yours might be something more useful, but I’ll stick to mine, thank you very much. My mother tongue, ostensibly one of the hardest languages to learn, is complex and unique, so much so that it doesn’t share similarities with any of the languages in the neighbouring countries. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the situation – communicating with people from other countries and learning other languages can be quite challenging. On the flipside, you can almost always freely make a discreet comment about someone within earshot to your friends when you’re abroad, and rest assured that the person in question will not decipher your meaning. 

This is only one of the many reasons why my mother tongue is so important to me. Perhaps the most important reason, however, is how expressive Hungarian is. The language is known for having long and complicated-looking words. We can express an entire sentence-worth of ideas in just one word: I love you (szeretlek); can I help you? (segíthetek?); I am lost (eltévedtem); did you miss me? (hiányoztam?). This is because Hungarian is an agglutinative language, meaning that it uses prefixes and suffixes to express grammatical functions – hence the long words. While these structures might make Hungarian sound really complex to foreign ears, it also allows our poetry to describe an amazing depth of feelings in a really eloquent yet concise way. Poets contributed a great deal to the reformation of the Hungarian language in the late 18th century and to our national identity at the time, which I think is why even today the language is so tied up with our history, identity, education, and art. 

Moving abroad, learning a new language, and communicating with most people in Italian or English has been an exciting new challenge for me, yet I sometimes catch myself missing those parts of me that are intimately tied up with my mother tongue and that I can’t fully express in English (let alone in my very broken Italian). At the same time, learning new concepts that only exist in English in my mind and that I would struggle to describe in my native language can feel somewhat alienating. On the other hand, I think that moving to Milan has also given me a new perspective on many things. The Italian attitude is very different from what I’ve been used to. While Hungarians are known for their pessimistic outlook on things (complaining is our national sport), I found that here people are more optimistic, determined, and take life a bit less seriously (except when it comes to exams at Bocconi). The idea that you gain a new “personality” with every language you speak, is a profound one in this context. Perhaps it is due to the grammatical toolkit that different languages work with, or the sounds used – I feel like Italian needs to be spoken with passion. In any case, it would be interesting to compare whether different languages induce different attitudes.

Related:  Monday Briefing 03/04/2023

Although I love and fully embrace my new normal, where I speak multiple languages every day, sometimes I like to go back to my origins by reading poetry or listening to music from Hungary. I feel like the sounds that surrounded me as I was growing up can bring me a type of comfort that nothing else can. Maybe that is also because of the attitudes that Hungarians have to life: full of sorrow and beauty. Although the translation doesn’t fully do it justice, I think this beloved poem by József Attila, one of the most famous Hungarian poets, may illustrate what I mean. 

With a pure heart

I have neither native sod,
nor a father, mother, god,
cradle gone, the shroud I miss,
lack a lover, lack a kiss.
Three days’ hunger, not a bite:
nothing heavy, nothing light.
Just on twenty, strong and well,
twenty years I’ll try to sell.
If a buyer can’t be got,
let the devil take the lot.
Pure at heart, I surely will
break and enter, even kill.
They will catch me, I’ll be hung,
blessed earth on me be flung,
deadly grasses will then start
growing on my splendid heart.

(Translation by Leslie A. Kery) 

Being bilingual is like constantly multitasking.

By Alisia Picciano

Yes, it sometimes leaves you exhausted, even if you are used to it. Yes, people consider you lucky for being able to do both things at once. No, you cannot stop doing it, at least not without leaving one of your halves behind. Multitasking is considered bad, because in the end you might not finish either of the tasks you were working on. 

Until not long ago, being raised in a bilingual environment was believed to put you at a disadvantage compared to monolingual children. Usually, bilingual babies start talking a bit later, but they still learn both (or more) languages simultaneously. They might mix them at first, but the borders become clear along the way.

As you grow up, you realise that speaking more languages at such a young age is not common, and people usually remember you by it. Bilingualism, while being a great conversation topic, is also a guarantee for openness. It almost always comes with a more bustling life because you have two countries, two cultures, two heritages to keep up with — especially if you do not want to choose between them.

You know how people say that speaking a new language changes your personality, and based on the language you speak you see things differently? Now try doing this for your whole life, try being two characters at once, as they did in medieval street theaters. Sometimes it is hard to know that you will not ever feel or be viewed fully this or that way, you cannot categorise yourself that easily. That is why it’s harmful to compare yourself to people with one native language. 

Being bilingual is increasingly common in a globalised world. Most people don’t like staying put in the same place for their whole lives. Hence, languages and views mix while continuing to shape who we are. It is on the path of becoming a global citizen where multilingual people are some steps ahead; being fulfilled by the joy of connecting to and understanding each other better. 

How many languages do you speak? An internal dilemma.  

By Dragos-Ioan Ile

“How many languages do you speak?” You’ve probably also been asked this question multiple times since starting university. Whether it is in an informal context such as an aperitivo, or a formal one, like when completing an application or editing your LinkedIn profile. It’s such an easy, yet utterly complicated question to answer. My first instinct would be to say four, which is the actual number of languages that I have learned so far over the years plus my native language: English, Italian, French, and Romanian.

But “speak” is relative, and I know that. Do they mean “speak” as in “native speaker” level “speak”, or “speak” as in “I know it, but I will only talk in it after you give me 3 beers”? If they add “fluently” at the end of the question, how does it change the meaning?  

First and foremost, am I “fluent” in English, or not? I mean, this article is in English, so I’d say yes, but then I also always have the Grammar Check software open on my laptop “just in case.” English was my first foreign language, and I’ve mostly learned it through informal ways such as YouTube or video games. Because of that, if you were to give me an exercise with verb tenses in English, I would for sure get at least half of the answers wrong. And let’s not talk about my accent, which sounds like the way someone from the Borat movie would talk after a few years of living in the US.  

If you were to look at my language certificate scores in French, you’d congratulate me for my fluency. But then again, I never managed to understand the overly complicated verlan, or to speak in proper French slang. When I open my mouth, it sounds as if I’m a walking Le Monde article with occasional grammar mistakes. And, whenever I hear French people my age talk to each other, it almost seems as if they’re speaking a completely different language. That sounds very far from “fluency.” 

And finally, let’s talk about Italian. I’ve been living here for almost two years, and Italian’s pretty much Romanian without Slavic words, so “fluency” should be pre-assumed. And yet, I still avoid using formal pronouns or any form of congiuntivo when I speak. With my Italian friends, I still talk in a mix of Italian and English because I don’t have the confidence to completely make the switch. Oh, and how can I forget: I still sometimes accidentally order a latte at Dahlia when I want to get a coffee with milk.  

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All my language journeys have been different, but they’ve each had a common feature: the feeling of frustration caused by the idea that I was never “working hard enough” to master that language. I never felt like I truly managed to become fluent in any tongue, to speak it in the proper, “native” way, and to feel comfortable expressing myself in every social situation. Adding on top of that the fact that after one year of living abroad, I started to forget some more formal, archaic Romanian words (to the utter disappointment of my grandma), and you have the perfect recipe of what I personally call a “linguistic crisis.” 

But I’ve come to realize that there is “beauty” in this language mess that I’ve created in my head. Every language that I’ve immersed myself in has left a different mark on my identity, and I should be proud of that. And even the language “gaps”, the incompleteness in fluency that I am so utterly ashamed of, represent a part of who I am. 

The way I learned each language and subsequently the way I speak it today is part of my story: I speak English with an accent because I was taught the language by my Romanian teachers back home. I speak French very rigidly because I learned it with the aim of continuing my studies in France, and because I was so utterly fascinated by France’s culture and literature. I speak Italian fast, grammatically wrong, and informally because I mostly learned it from my Italian friends at Bocconi, who have been caring enough to leave the grammar lessons aside and instead teach me the name of every possible Italian cheese, or the most creative regional swear words. And finally, whenever I talk in Romanian I insert some English, Italian, or French words every other sentence, because now all these languages have become an integral part of the person that I am today. So, I think I finally found my answer. I “speak” both four languages and none at the same time. 

And that’s totally fine.  

Author profile

I am a second year BESS student. Having lived both in Italy and the UK, I enjoy exploring how multiculturalism affects our personal identities. I would like to employ writing as a way to decipher culture, and socio-economic issues.

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Deputy Director | daniela.castro@studbocconi.it

A student in economics, arts, and culture, I am passionate about all things creative. Through writing, I try to convey my love for cinema, literature, and music.

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I was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. I graduated in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick in 2022, and currently I am pursuing a double degree at Bocconi University and Sciences Po. In my writing, I like to investigate topics in politics, society, culture, art, and innovation, to try and decipher what the years to come will bring, and to share with my peers my lens to the world around us

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I’m a first-year BAI student from Budapest. Being Italo-Hungarian I always found it challenging to define where I belong, in all the places I’ve been to I found a piece of home. Travelling and learning languages are my favourite hobbies, beside reading and writing. I have a deep passion for science and research

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I am a 19-year-old born and raised in Romania, currently studying Economic and Social Sciences. My fields of interest include economic and public policy, human rights, and obviously journalism. In my free time, I love playing piano, learning languages, and finding places that serve good coffee wherever I go.

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