by Natalie Vermeulen, Student Writer
“If I could have any superpower, I would speak all the languages in the world,” a young college student mused aloud as she walked back across campus after dinner on a warm spring evening. “I would love to be able to communicate with anyone I meet, no matter what.”
Est-ce que vous parlez une autre langue? ¿Habla usted una otra lengua? Do you speak another language? For many students on Messiah College’s campus, the answer is yes.
At Messiah, multilingualism surfaces among students in many different ways. Some students speak different languages at home, and some learned English as a second language. Some learned English first, but were required to learn other languages in school when they were younger. Some have dedicated their college lives to studying and learning a new language. Some are international students from among the 46 different countries represented at Messiah, where their native tongue might be something other than English.
While languages can provide a sense of community among speakers throughout the world, they also have the potential to create a sense of identity and character within individuals. So what does it look like to live a multilingual life for Messiah students?
According to Luiza Cliver, the assistant director of international student programs in Messiah’s Intercultural Office, the place students come from and the language they speak growing up at home are important factors to consider when looking at their language stories. Working closely with international students, Cliver has come to notice patterns of how multilingualism impacts this population of students.
“It really depends on where our students are coming from,” she explained. “The majority of our international student population is coming from Malaysia. English is actually their first language, and so they for the most part went to school [and] have spoken English their entire lives.” For these students, speaking multiple languages is less of a barrier than it might be for someone who learned English as a second language.
Cliver also noted the importance of the communal aspect of a shared language: “I often find that language plays a part in their identity typically when there is a cohort of students who also speak that same language,” she said.
However, among the international student population, individual students’ experiences with language have taken shape very differently.
Meet Ryan Sum: a sophomore international business major who speaks English, Chinese, and Malay. For him, multilingualism is something he can use to his advantage, but it does not play a large role in influencing his identity.
“I guess it’s just words,” he said about speaking multiple languages. “I don’t see any different meaning to it.”
Growing up in Malaysia, Sum learned English as his first language, which is his dominant language and the one he still speaks at home. He was required to learn Chinese and Malay in school, but apart from the educational world, he does not often use these two languages.
Rather than being indicative of his own identity, Sum associates his ability to speak different languages with the identity of the people to whom he is speaking.
“I don’t think it changes much [about my identity], because the way I use language is who I’m speaking to; so if I’m more comfortable talking in Chinese to some person I’ll use Chinese, and if I’m more comfortable with English, I’ll speak English,” he explained.
While his multilingualism does not make him feel any closer to other students on campus who also speak multiple languages, he does feel like it has helped him make friends in the world of translation.
“I have a ton of Chinese courses in Messiah College,” he said. “Most of the American students, they don’t get the language quite easily, so if they don’t understand the teacher, I could—you could say it’s tutoring, I tutor them. It’s a good way to make friends here.”
His skills in Chinese, Malay, and English open up future possibilities for him to work around the world as well, especially as an international business major.
Although his many languages might open doors along life’s way, they are not what make him him. An added bonus, maybe, but not his full identity.
While language may not be an integral part of some international students’ lives, it plays a determining role in the lives of others.
Meet Yosep Youn: a junior English education major who speaks English, Indonesian, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic.
“More or less it’s who I am,” he said quite simply of all his languages. “I mean, just think about how much you speak on a daily basis—just think about doing that in two different languages.” Or for him, in three, four, five different languages.
As a missionary kid, Youn grew up in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Indonesia. Arabic was his first language, which he learned in Saudi Arabia, and he picked up Korean from his parents. He then moved to Korea when he was 7, where he learned Chinese in school, and was also exposed to English. And in third grade he went to Indonesia, where he learned Indonesian and more English. Now, he is less confident in his Arabic and Chinese, but he speaks English, Indonesian, and Korean fluently.
Youn calls his multilingualism a blessing. However, he has experienced ups and downs of being able to speak so many languages at once.
“The good thing is I get to communicate and understand more people and what backgrounds they come from and things like that,” he explained. “The downside is you’re neither this or that. Like you tend to forget the language you don’t speak, so that’s kind of hard, especially when you go back home after a couple of years.”
While speaking many languages increases the breadth of his communication skills, it also has the potential of becoming difficult to juggle.
“I don’t think I speak or write English very well, as in a sense that I can call myself a native,” he continued. “And because I am not, I feel like the best I can reach is the 99th percentile, not the 100th. That’s what I feel about Indonesian, Arabic, Chinese, and even Korean, even though I’m a native. The last time I got Korean education was when I was in third grade, so there’s no way I can reach the ‘full potential.’ That kind of sucks, but that also means that I can talk with great people like you in your native language. I don’t have to talk to you in French, and I don’t have to talk to my parents in English or Indonesian. I can talk to them face-to-face with the language they are most confident in and that’s Korean. So I feel like as an individual, myself, I really get to know more because I speak their language, so I get to dive in to more their personal life.”
Multilingualism has given him a means of connecting with people on a more personal level. Even though he may not consider his language to be perfect, it provides a more intimate dynamic for many of his relationships, and he has felt himself grow because of it.
Along with facilitating human connections, Youn’s language abilities bring a different perspective to his worship life as well. If he can speak to humans in different languages, why not speak to God, the creator of language, that way as well?
“Every time I write or read or anything like that I tend to be more subjective with English and objective in Korean,” he said. “And I don’t know how it works but when I sing the same song in multiple languages, I always get different moments of grace.” Language is a diverse part of him, and he uses each one to praise the Lord. “I just go back and forth without me noticing, and I guess that’s just because I’m in the zone.”
Because Youn feels as though he has no clear dominant language, he finds himself switching between them even in his thinking.
“I tend to think in whatever language that just comes to my mind,” he explained. “Most of the times it’s just a bunch of them all together. You’re like, start with English, come up with a random Indonesian word in the middle, and end in Korean.”
Each one of Youn’s languages is an integral part of his identity. Put them together, and you come one step closer to seeing the world through his eyes.
This transformative experience with language is not at all limited to international students on campus, nor does it have to be a part of a person’s childhood. Sometimes, a multilingual lifestyle comes by choice.
Meet Marissa Donlevie: a sophomore Spanish education major who speaks English and Spanish. For her, language is something to which she has decided to dedicate her life.
“Speak to a man in a language he understands, and it goes to his head. But speak to a man in his own language, and it goes to his heart”: the quote from Nelson Mandela that inadvertently inspired Donlevie to learn a second language and become a Spanish major.
Donlevie grew up in a home speaking only English, but since she was little, she wanted to be bilingual. She remembers watching documentaries when she was younger, one of which was about Nelson Mandela. She forgot all about this documentary and the quote that stood out to her until high school.
“I realized that this was something that I really loved,” she said of taking her first high school Spanish classes, “because I am an extrovert and I love people and I love communicating with people. That [Mandela] quote continued to resonate with me, and I wanted to be able to communicate to people’s hearts.”
So began her journey to multilingualism—one that has come to impact her identity and the ways in which she sees the world.
“I think the first thing is identifying myself as ‘bilingual,’” she said. “That’s really weird. I’m still not fully comfortable calling myself that, but in all honesty, I am.”
She still wouldn’t refer to herself as fluent, instead calling herself “flu” to show she is in the process of working toward her goal. Regardless of her level of expertise, her love of Spanish has given her opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level.
“Language and culture are so interconnected, and so in studying Spanish, in studying language, I have learned a greater appreciation for the Spanish culture,” she explained. “From that I’ve learned a greater appreciation of culture in general, and how beautiful of a thing it is. I feel like in how I approach culture and how I approach people who have different cultural backgrounds than me I can kind of attempt to have a better understanding because I have that bilingual-ish background.”
This connection to culture and language served her well when she traveled as a missionary to Guatemala a few years ago.
“A lot of what I feel like God is calling me to is being involved in Hispanic communities,” she said. Her ability to speak Spanish helped her fulfill that calling in Guatemala and allowed her to form deeper connections with the people there because she was able to communicate with them.
Not only does Donlevie use her multilingualism to serve God’s people, but she sees it as a way to praise and worship Him directly as well.
“I view language and language learning and traveling as an act of worship,” she said. “To be able to see and appreciate all of God’s creation—because He created everyone so diverse, and He created every language with the Towel of Babel, and He created every country and every culture—so to be able to learn about that is for me a way to worship, and to say this is something outside of me, but this is not something outside of God.”
Language has equipped her to better serve the Lord by connecting with His people and His creation, for which she has a better appreciation by seeing Him in action around the world. On her first missions trip to Guatemala, she experienced people praying in Spanish for the first time, which opened her eyes to the fact that God understands all languages.
“I like that a lot, to think like if He can understand every language, then of course He can understand me, you know?” she said.
For Donlevie, language is not only a passion, but a calling, no matter how that manifests itself in the future.
“At the end of the day in my perspective it doesn’t matter how many things I accomplish, it’s more so how many hearts have I touched,” she said. “Language gives me a whole other culture of people that I can touch hearts with and have my heart touched by.”
All three of these students agree that language brings people together and creates opportunities for the future. The degree to which it influences identity, however, varies.
“There are all these different expressions and ways of thinking about and looking at things that one language just simply doesn’t capture,” Cliver said, speaking from experience. But she also explained, “there are ways of connecting that often have to be not tied to language.”
So, is speaking multiple languages really a superpower?
Maybe. Multilingualism has the power to increase the depth of world perspective and understanding. But for some, it’s just a normal part of life.