A language-jam? Reasons to embrace multilingualism in the UK cultural industries

Noah Birksted-Breen

As a child, my mother told me a game she played, growing up in Paris. As she and her brother were bilingual in French and English, they would look for words or phrases in one language which would sound funny when translated. So ‘traffic jam’ becomes ‘confiture de voitures’, which means literally a ‘jam made of cars’. This literal translation evolves into a surreal image, which is of course contained in the original ‘traffic jam’. But in our daily lives we naturalise languages and forget the strange associations contained within them. Moving between languages allows artists and audiences to notice the construct of language itself. By making us aware that language is not a neutral container, it has its own logic, lineage and associations, multilingualism is the perfect stimulus for creative thought and creativity in general. Putting languages in the spotlight can lead to critical reflection on shared cultural practices as well as unchallenged societal assumptions.

Although I grew up speaking only English as a native language, I heard French spoken by my parents around the house, particularly if they were trying to keep a secret from my sister and I (for example, about which birthday presents to buy us!). Probably because of my early exposure to multilingualism, I’ve always been aware that cultures and languages are not ideologically neutral. We inherit these containers. They shape us; they influence our thinking and our ways of being.  

Conversations with Artists using “other” languages in their creative work – a report by Beatfreeks, commissioned by Slanguages (Birmingham City University), is a useful reminder that artists draw upon languages in many different ways. Rather than taking a reductive approach, which might assume that all languages offer a single set of creative opportunities, this report documents linguistic diversity in action. For some artists, language is a chance to connect to audiences who might not otherwise feel represented. Ayan Aden, a spoken word artist, observes that:

When you speak to someone’s native tongue, it touches a core within them that is untapped by a language they had to learn.

For other artists, language allows them to express their own feelings including cultural alienation – which is to say difficult subjects which might be oversimplified if expressed monolingually. The poet Amerah Saleh describes the experience of speaking a native language in her life and work:

 It’s like how if I was a musician, my beat to everybody else’s would be completely off.

While somebody speaking a ‘minority’ language in the UK might feel isolated, this isolation is also a type of uniqueness – as the report demonstrates – and an opportunity to find creativity which can be shared, to help overcome that isolation, or at the very least express how it feels to find communion with audiences.

The report is punctuated with direct quotations, such as the ones above, from ten multilingual performance and visual artists interviewed by the Beatfreeks collective. These testimonies capture the role of language as identity-maker; as a pathway to creativity for both artist and audience; as a way of experiencing aspects of the world in a fresh light.

One line of questioning by the Beatfreeks was around languages as economic value, does using languages increase economic opportunities for the artists? Based on the responses, the report is inconclusive:

In terms of monetary contributions to the creative economy, many participants found it difficult to put a specific number on the economic contribution they had made based on their use of another language.        

Even without any firm conclusions, this report could – and perhaps should – act as a reminder that languages are generally overlooked in various spheres of cultural ‘accounting’, for example, how widely are languages used in the creative economy, or how much economic value do languages bring to the cultural industries? These figures might not be so difficult to come by, if for example a survey were commissioned by Arts Council England – or even a mechanism included in regular reporting for the National Portfolio Organisations, around the proportions of languages represented in their repertoires (‘how many multilingual works did you stage this year?’ etc). While the case for languages is surely a creative case above all else, as this report highlights, the arbitrators of culture tend to pay more attention when the economic case has also been made – so I hope this section of the report may also be cause for reflection among cultural leaders.

I want to end with a quote from Saleh about one of her poems which – like my mother’s game as a child – finds playful associations through multilingualism:

There is a line [in my poem] which goes “she’s like a paintbrush breastfeeding two babies at once”. When people first saw it they were like “woah, it’s such a weird image”, because that’s a saying in Arabic. Sometimes what I’ve found in my creative practice is that the literal translation could sound so fucking bizarre, but also if you were Arab and you read it you’d be like “oh yeah, I know exactly where that came from”.

This report serves as a timely reminder that languages, with all their levels of meaning and aural/visual associations are fundamentally playful and creative. From that realisation, it becomes self-evident that the UK cultural industries would benefit from a widespread embrace of multilingual artists and multilingual art. Policies designed to substantially increase multilingualism across the creative economy would reinvigorate badly-needed conversations around diversity, race, equality, access and progressive societal change, opening the door to fresh faces and fresh ideas.

Read the Slanguages in the Creative Economy report

Download the report here>>

Dr Noah Birksted-Breen is a Teaching Fellow in Drama at Queen Mary University of London and a Post-doctoral Researcher with Creative Multilingualism.