Performing Languages: on multilingualism and language hierarchies

Roundtable panel
Lou Sarabadzic

As a Warwickshire-based translator and creative writer in French and English, I’ve long been aware of the four-year research programme Creative Multilingualism. Due to professional commitments, I had however never been able to attend previous events. On Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd February 2019, I was finally able to attend the inspiring Performing Languages conference.

What I liked most about the conference is that it didn’t simply advocate for creative multilingualism; it made it happen, there and then. In addition to discussing their research and practice, attendees had the pleasure to see live performances, work with great artists, and support their latest works. To me, this was a clear demonstration of what the research programme had stated from the start : "there is more to languages than their practical benefits for communicative transactions". Indeed there is, and indeed there was!

Another major strength of the conference was to make inclusion a key component. When thinking about multilingualism, it is tempting to see it as a mere synonym for diversity. Yet it isn’t necessarily the case. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to take part in a roundtable: to discuss hierarchies in languages and the power structures they reveal.

As a white middle-class woman speaking French and English, I have an extremely privileged experience of bilingualism – and of immigration, for that matter. This is due to many factors, among them the fact that French is a European language, and that it is spoken around the world as a consequence of a vast French colonial empire. French is thus considered desirable, useful, and ultimately seen as a valuable skill.

For some people speaking non-European languages, sadly, multilingualism is much more likely to be a discrimination factor. Rather than a skill, it can be deemed as an obstacle to integration – this is a common argument in xenophobic and racist discourses. With language-learning there almost always comes the question of what we should focus our efforts on. One simple fact as a reminder of this: Punjabi and Urdu are spoken much more widely than French within the UK, yet it is French that is part of the traditional school curriculum.

We can’t take inclusion for granted, even when speaking about multilingualism. I’ve noticed how often sign languages, for instance, are overlooked in discussions about translation and interpreting.

I was therefore glad to see all of these assumptions challenged at the “Performing Languages” conference. Tim Supple from Dash Arts focused on non-European languages during two exercises of his workshop “Making Multilingual Theatre”, Rinkoo Barpaga delivered a great performance on Urban Sign Language, and Ashlee E L Roberts’s moving performance included representations of patois, just to name a few. This conference was inclusive and self-reflexive in ways many conferences aren’t. In that sense, it truly was performative, and encouraged intellectual stimulation as much as creativity.

Ashlee E L Roberts

As a poet, I write in French, English, and sometimes both languages within the same piece. It is the case for the poem “To the happy few” featured below. Rhythm and sounds are crucial in poetry, hence why I love to play with two languages within a poem. But I also want to question our relationships to language(s) and the literary canon. French is highly valued, particularly when it comes to literature. It definitely doesn’t have to face the same prejudices than other languages, particularly non-Western-European languages.

This piece came from my own experience as a French immigrant to the UK, as I witnessed time and time again the double-standards at play in terms of languages, which in turn revealed how we usually defined “immigration”. I share it here as it reminded me of some of the challenging and productive conversations that we had during the conference.


To the happy few

First published in A) Glimpse) Of) (“The Two Issue”, 2018)


Languages, like immigrants,

must be carefully chosen.

Then and only then

is it decent bilingualism.


Otherwise we call it





Moi aussi je parle un petit peu de français.


Escaping war or conflict

is no proper way to linguistic skills.

Nor is coming from former colonies.

‘So… you speak African?’


Bilingualism is this dream wedding

performed in a fine white dress.

It’s the immaculate story

a passionate you tells smiling guests.


Je l’ai appris à l’école.


In the UK they exulted.

Princess Charlotte is already bilingual.

Aw that’s so cute but what about

the cuteness of Punjabi? I asked myself.


My young neighbour is trilingual

and I didn’t see

rushing to the area

any national news agency.


Je m’épelle John, je vis à Londres.


Sometimes, unlike him, they call me ‘expat.’

If I say ‘immigrant’, they laugh: ‘I don’t see


as an immigrant!’


It’s basic European maths.

You’re not twice as diverse,


but twice as dominant.


Alouette, gentille alouette, alouette je te plumerai.


Language is power.

As former Empires we form an alliance.

Alliance means wedding ring

and I said no. But they carried on anyway.


Lou Sarabadzic is a French writer living in Warwickshire, and a member of Room 204, Writing West Midlands' writer development programme. She has published a French novel and an award-winning poetry collection. Her poems, in French and English, have also appeared in a range of publications including Gutter and Morphrog. She is Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) at Asymptote, the premier site for world literature in translation.

Follow Lou on Twitter @lousarabadzic.

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Where next?

Find out about our Slanguages projects

What does it mean to perform language?

Finding poetry in a new language