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CATESOL Book Reflection: The Multilingual Self: An Inquiry into Language Learning

Michelle Skowbo

Book Reflections - Our Inaugural Column

Drawing on the CATESOL Blog Book Review posts, the CATESOL Blog will be offering a monthly Book Reflections post that will be sole author or co-author pieces offering reflective pieces on one or more books related to ELT. The column provides a book review with a more reflective discussion or personal critique of a publication/s. The intention is to offer a personal narrative-sharing article to promote (a) book(s), but not in the conventional chapter summary format of academic book reviews, that may appeal to some members a bit more as readers or as writers.

The inaugural column for May 2023 is offered by Navneet Potti. For June, we have Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice offered by Melissa Bourg, Kevin Tapee and Yeeun Choi. For July, check out an examination of four texts that prompted reflection from Dr. Tara J. Yosso’s Saturday Plenary at the 2022 CATESOL Annual Conference by Kara Mac Donald.

The Multilingual Self: An Inquiry into Language Learning
By Natasha Lvovich 

Image Natasha Lvovich The Multilingual Self: An Inquiry into Language Learning

By Navneet Potti
In my head, all even numbers are either blue or red, while all the odd ones are either green or black. As I sit here and think of the number 8, my mind’s eye creates the numeral in a striking shade of indigo, and the number 7 appears in what I’ve seen being referred to as “forest green”. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, my earliest recollection is from middle school and anything to do with numbers had me breaking into a sweat. Mathematics confused and scared me in equal measure, and I was constantly grappling with ways in which I could understand it better. I don’t remember what caused it, but I found that starting to think of numbers in terms of colors made them more approachable - friendlier even. It helped me understand mathematical concepts more easily and in a way that made the approach to learning more “mine” - something that worked on the basis of rules I had made and not something I was reading in a textbook or being lectured at by an intimidating adult standing at the front of my classroom. So when forced to think of the first few prime numbers, I would automatically think of the “friends in green” - 3, 7, 11, 13, 17 and 19 - standing smartly shoulder to shoulder. Or when attempting to learn the multiples of 12, my mind would fire up a silent fireworks display of blues and reds. Distracting? Maybe. But it did help drive the point home to my numerically addled brain and saved my skin on multiple occasions over my next few years of academic pursuits.
But as much as this system helped me, I never shared it with anyone. Not with my equally struggling classmates who’d laugh me off telling me I was mixing up mathematics with art class, and definitely not with my teachers, who I feared would balk at this strange student of theirs, audaciously attempting to apply an element of imagination, personality (and color?) to the serious subject of algebra. In fact, I think this writing is my first public acceptance of this self-crafted approach to learning something, which I couldn’t seem to do if I followed more prescribed methods. And the reason that it’s this review of a book by a language expert that has drawn out this long-hidden admission is that I found a rare kindred spirit in the author, for whom “synesthesia” (as I now know it to be called) was a significant part of her language-learning process. As she admits, when struggling to memorize the days of the week in English, “they seemed colorless and all similar”, until she “started consciously thinking about their colors, and they finally appeared bright and all differentiated”, and her orange-red Mondays and dark purple Fridays were now seared into her memory forever. But as in my case, as much as this synesthetic ability served as one of her most effective learning tools, it wasn’t until much later in life that she admitted to having it, let alone using it. It was only when, in a role as teacher herself, she used this “strange faculty” to help her Russian-learning students learn numbers more easily, did she come to finally accept it, going so far as to suggest that it might unify individuals whose “world of abstract, intellectual, and sensory associations is much richer than they tend to think” and so much a part of their learning experiences and journeys, no matter what the subject. Thanks to “Confessions of a Synesthete”, the second chapter of Natasha Lvovich’s The Multilingual Self: An Inquiry into Language Learning, I now feel less alone and more like one among a secret underworld of mental survivalists. Oh, and in my head, we’re all dressed in steel-gray.

At first glance, the title of the book threw me. Almost dismissing it as an exercise in the theory of language study, it wasn’t until I considered it more closely that I saw it to be a semi-autobiographical account of an English language teacher as a multilingual immigrant in New York. As I find myself at the cusp of a series of ELT-based career moves in the United States as a so-called NNEST, all of that hit home and I looked forward to the opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of someone who attempted something similar, and successfully so. Natasha Lvovich is currently Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City, with a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and a distinguished background in French Language and Literature. The book, written in 1997, five years after she came to America, is the first book she wrote in English, and is a collection of stories of her life and specifically of the role that languages played in her life and how they helped her build her sense of self.

Broadly, and without giving too much away, the book is divided into three chronological sections - an account of her early years in Russia, and then as an adult in the United States, with a portion of her short stay in Italy as she and her family awaited visas to America. In each section, language plays a defining, almost life-saving role in the author’s experiences, growth and identity - offering her everything from a means of human connection with family and friends, to emotional refuge from the effects of a terrifying pogrom in Russia, and finally, a crucial employment skill in the shaky first few years of her life in America. In the first part of the book, she goes into vivid, uplifting detail about how a complete immersion into the French language and culture became the instrument that helped retain her sanity and create a strong identity for herself as a linguaphile - her “French self” - as her Jewish family struggled to survive one of the worst antisemitic phases in human history. In the second section of the book, based on her time in Italy which she calls a “broke Rome vacation”, she reproduces a couple of charming letters to her old friends, telling them of how her experiences living in a little resort town, trying to learn the local language, and trying to assimilate as much of the culture as she could in the little time she had, led to the creation of her brief “Italian self”. And finally, in what was the most difficult section of the book for me as a reader, she chronicles the momentous arrival of herself and her family in the United States, and how contrary to her every expectation, and much to her (and my own) surprise, this final landing of her eventful life brought with it even more turmoil - only this time, unwittingly internal and of her own creation. It’s in this section that the author brings forth her most honest and vulnerable acknowledgements of her existence as a “new immigrant”. She struggles to reconcile her sudden “outsider” identity with her self-assuredness as the confident and intellectual “native” she has known herself to be all along. In a particularly poignant section, she writes about the realization of confronting and even embracing this displacement and sense of feeling unmoored as an opportunity to once again do what she does best, to use her skills as an uncannily skilled student and proponent of new language, create opportunities for personal and professional advancement, and finally settle into the last of her multilingual and multicultural identities, or her “American self”.

Over the past year or so, the world has found itself in a prolonged moment of reckoning with “artificial intelligence”, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. It’s humanly impossible to get through a day anymore without coming across the words “chat”, or the letters G, P, and T in quick succession, no matter where you live or what you do. Every aspect of human existence, whether commercial, academic, governance-based, creative, or even interpersonal is having to deal with the difficult question of how soon nothing will be impossible as long as a machine is involved, or more worryingly, how soon human involvement in any aspect of our lives will be unnecessary. As someone who has just begun a deeper exploration of the world of ELT, I am equal parts hopeful and nervous, but don’t yet know enough to say with any degree of confidence what profound impact non-human entities will have on English language learning, and if human involvement in it is as dispensable as everyone says it is. 

But I’m nothing if not an optimist - and that optimist was grinning from ear to ear while reading sections of the book that make it clear that Ms. Lvovich’s life and book of languages wouldn’t count for much if it wasn’t for the steady and recurring presence of impactful human beings in her life who, in her own words, “brought language to her.” In some of its brightest moments, the book shines light on some of these people - the author’s paternal grandmother and grand-aunt, an imposing and unforgettable French teacher, foreigner friends from all over the world with whom she formed lifelong bonds, her class of Canadian students to whom she taught Russian, an unexpected, and unexpectedly strong, if short-lived, friendship with an American “son of the soil”, and even her boss at a New York college. In what I see as a story of enduring human survival and achievement under the most trying of circumstances, it seems fitting that the author’s most productive, fulfilling and long-lasting entanglements with all her languages came at the hands of creative, imaginative, and overall good human beings - real people. As she herself says in a now personal favorite paragraph, “We are all social creatures. No matter how hard we try to draw on the inner sources, we still need other people to tell us who we are. With them and through them, we receive and give social information, learn about and reinvent ourselves. If this social and self-actualizing experience is at the same time a language learning experience, then the wholeness of the new identity building process - thinking, speaking, crying, joking, laughing, and dreaming, expressed in a foreign language - becomes a creative discovery.” Take that, ChatGPT.

As someone who enjoys reading memoirs, I thought this was an eye-opening, if sometimes fraught, read. The author’s life situations and experiences with education and learning have been far more extraordinary and drastic than I could ever imagine, but it is her honest and lucid account of them that made it so easy for me to understand, empathize with, and even cheer her on from beyond the fourth wall. It goes without saying that the author is a wonderfully gifted writer and along with the aforementioned chapter on synesthesia, a couple of beautifully written chapters - one on language acquisition through food, and another on how learning a new language and learning to drive a car are similar undertakings - really stood out. More than by her intellectual excellence or her academic successes, it was by her stories of emotional and intellectual survival and triumph that I found myself most moved and inspired. It serves as a means for ESL teachers to remind themselves of the inner processes of language learners. While my opinion of the book as a language teacher will likely require additional readings and a more well-informed perspective, as a general reader, I can say that the book is a should-read for those interested in anything at the intersection of language, learning and multiculturalism.

Based in New York City, Navneet Potti is a freshly minted CELTA graduate, and an aspiring early practitioner of TESOL. When not in a heated discussion over why the ‘schwa’ shouldn’t be called a “lazy sound”, he’s always on the lookout for the next good cup of coffee. He can be reached at