The right to many tongues and multilingual cities / Open Democracy

“This is multilingualism, not in the sense of everyone speaking the same multiple languages, but the multilingualism of accepting difference and a willingness to listen to many tongues even if we do not fully understand them.

According to the geo-philosopher Henri Lefebvre, “the right to the city is like a cry and a demand… a transformed and renewed right to urban life.” To Lefebvre, the right to the city is first and foremost the right of those who inhabit its space, regardless of nationality and legal status. It involves the right to participation and the right to appropriation, among others. The right to appropriation entails the right to produce urban space in relation to producing ourselves in accordance to our needs, and the right to participation is the right to participate in decision-making irrespective of nationality. I would like to address the linguistic dimension to claiming urban space at an everyday level.

Historic, oldest city in Holland, walkers at forefront, cafes in background

Nijemegen. Stefano Guidi/Demotix. All rights reserved


Right to multilingual urban spaces

I am many, and a central aspect of my self-identification is that I possess multiple tongues. Possessing multiple tongues does not mean that I speak and think in many languages with high fluency and expertise all the time. But it does mean, for instance, that my English acquires accents, forms, sounds, shades, frames, emotions and symbolisms in different encounters. My English mixes, mates with and marries other languages to produce hybrid tongues in different situations and under varying conditions. It changes when I am addressing, for instance an academic audience, and when I am debating the same issue with my family and friends. It is, at the same time, situational and relational with those whom I interact with, and can shift in form from written to spoken, heard and read. I can also communicate in different languages apart from English – such as Kannada, Tamil, Spanish, Dutch, Hindi, with varying fluencies in different situations. All this is an aspect of my multilingual identity. Recently I had three strong experiences that I would like to delve into in order to reflect on this issue of the right to produce multilingual urban spaces.

Right to a city of travelling tongues

The first incident was during a train journey. Cities are often imagined as ‘objects’ which we inhabit. But  urban space is produced in everyday movements. Regardless of how large or small scale such movements are, each of us experiences ‘the city’ in our daily embodied movements. Recently, my daily routes from home to the train station, and the train routes to work and back, these relationalities or overlappings of trajectories/movements of people, have become central to my urban experiences. The joy of public transportation is precisely this, the confrontations and surprises that come from sharing a space for a short time with those who also happen to be passing through that space and time with you. Anyway, here I was on my way back in the evening from Nijmegen to Eindhoven with a changeover in DenBosch. The interesting part of the journey happened in the train from DenBosch to Eindhoven. As I entered the compartment I realized that this was marked down as a ‘stilte/silence’ compartment. Here in the Netherlands some compartments are designated for travelling in silence for those who prefer to do so, and if one wishes to talk or not be in a silent compartment one is expected to simply move to another compartment that is not marked as silent. Normally, the collective consensus in my experiences so far has been that people do stick to this rule, with occasional exceptions. Since I was alone I did not mind sitting in a silent compartment that day. In a few seconds, an old man came and sat in front of me, and a beautiful girl who had also been a passenger on my previous train joined the compartment and sat in the opposite window from mine. Following her, a middle-aged man arrived wearing a suit, and pulling a roller suitcase. He sat adjacent to me and opposite the beautiful girl. He was holding a piece of paper and it appeared to me that he wanted some clarifications about the direction of the train. He was trying desperately in English to communicate with the beautiful girl, but since she did not speak English she was unable to answer him satisfactorily. I paid more attention to him, and was able to understand his question and give him the needed directions. He was of course very grateful to me, but this suddenly led to an emotional outburst of all his accumulating frustrations of the day of not being able to communicate with people while still needing their help. He expressed his feelings of hurt and he even expressed a sense of having been discriminated against on account of being black. These emotional outbursts happened in a mixture of Spanish, English and what sounded like an African language. He kept waving his Spanish passport to communicate that he was a ‘legal’ traveller and had every right to be there.

By speaking in a mixed tongue of three languages, he was demanding a right to inhabit this space in his own way. He was, in fact, then and there, producing and claiming a multilingual urban space, challenging the dominance of a single, often national language, in this case Dutch, in urban interactions. When I spoke back to him also in Spanish and English, I noticed that his face was taken over by a big smile and his body began to relax. He immediately began to connect also to the beautiful girl opposite him about the languages she spoke and when she mentioned Arabic he tried to speak some words to her in an Arabic which made her laugh. The old man in front of me was attentively listening to our conversations all along but told me that he only spoke Dutch. I then translated in Dutch to him what the business traveller had so far been explaining to us, which to some extent he had already guessed from observing the businessman’s body language. All in all as I sat there with three other people not only breaking the rules of the train by speaking to each other in a silent compartment (this is quite rare since people like to follow rules here in Netherlands), but we were in our own ways claiming our right to an urban space of multilingualism – multilingualism, not in the sense of everyone speaking the same multiple languages, but a multilingualism of accepting difference and a willingness to listen to many tongues, even if we did not fully understand them.

Right to urban languages of the heart

The next incident took place in a more geopolitical space – in a waiting room of the UK visa application centre in Amsterdam. Despite living in the Netherlands for more than 5 years, the fact that the UK seems and is so remote as far as I am concerned, can be put down to the border regulations of Schengen and the UK border agency. However, recently, my partner and I were pushed into applying for a UK visa by a visit from a close family member to London. They would not be coming to see us in Netherlands, since Schengen is not part of the UK visa, so we decided to make the effort.

Anyway, as I sat there with my documents all pinned and filed together, a number in hand, and waiting to be called for a biometric scan, I felt thoroughly quiescent as a silent passive object required nevertheless to move and perform the carefully laid out steps of behaviour within the confines of the dull white walls of what was not even an embassy, but the office of the company providing the visa services. My docile state of mind was somewhat punctured by the entry of a man speaking in a high-pitch Hindi. Not only did his tense tones break the silence in the room, but they introduced some drama into what had previously consisted of passive waiting rhythms. This caught my attention much more than the others present in the room because I speak and understand Hindi. He was here to check how much longer his wife and himself would be required to wait. Both were upset that nobody would tell them how long this procedure would take, especially since their kids were waiting for them in the carpark.

He began to raise his voice and expressed his frustrations to his wife and the lady ushering applicants from one waiting room to another. But she could only repeat the pre-programmed response of ‘we do not know how long it will take sir”, which did not help the situation much. Indeed state power manifests itself in a hierarchy of waiting times and we too had experienced something similar.  I could not resist speaking to them in Hindi and trying in my own way to empathise with their situation, given that I myself was also rather frustrated with the hellish visa procedure so far. Here again, by speaking in Hindi within the confined and highly controlled and silencing spaces of the UK visa center in a Dutch capital city, we were claiming our right to the city, a right to a city that speaks in the tongues that our hearts speak from, and not from tongues that have been cowed into following the language of dominance. Of course I spoke in English as well to others waiting alongside me. The guy opposite me who was holding a passport from Sierra Leone smiled back at me when I said aloud that ‘we’ (all of us sitting there) were being discriminated against on the basis of our passports. But the fact that I spoke in Hindi and English as a way of connecting to the people present in that space and time was a claim to a multilingual space. Here I was sharing the room with all those who simply happened to be there because of the lived borders of the UK, segregated because of the many colours of our passports. And while I hardly feel the urge to connect in Hindi in other situations where I might be able to do so, in this disciplining space of the visa centre I felt the sudden urge to speak in many tongues. I felt the need to listen to all the many languages that were most likely hidden just under the surface of the clean walls of proper English which each of us were expected to fit within. This was a cry for the right to push at the borders of the tongues imposed on us by state borders, a cry for a city built from the languages of the heart.

Right to a city of sharing and mixing tongues 

My final story is part of my recent experiences of working with a local support organisation for undocumented migrants in Nijmegen. Given that I am a migrant myself I prefer the descriptive, travelling migrant. However, in a place like the Netherlands, documents do influence, if not totally dictate, one’s everyday trajectories and life-choices, and therefore undocumentedness produces its own spatio-temporalities.

Anyway as I entered the café to attend my first informal meeting at the organisation, I was taken by the sounds of many languages, only some of which I understood. I was told that I was hearing Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian, Den, Bengali, among many others that not everyone recognised. I was overwhelmed with the diverse tongues producing and claiming that space of the café which I had never before experienced in such a way in an enclosed private-public space in the Netherlands. I was also curious to know if I could speak in languages I normally don’t use in my public interactions outside my home such as tamil or kannada or hindi. It turned out that nobody could speak the other languages (other than Dutch and English) that I spoke, and given that many migrants did not speak English either, Dutch had to be the best way forward for communication.

So here I was sharing the space with people of many tongues feeling quite at home and resorting to Dutch as a shared tongue. However as I began speaking I realised that we were speaking in many tongues again, despite Dutch being our only shared language. We were switching from Dutch to mixing words in English or one’s own mother tongue, sometimes completely switching to one’s mother tongue and sometimes coming back to Dutch, all the while nevertheless making eye contact and very much trying to express what we wanted to. Right here in this café of a migrant support organisation in the Netherlands, many worlds and many tongues were claiming their right to a city of mixed and shared tongues. In these acts of trying to cling onto Dutch as the only shared language, while nevertheless almost unconsciously slipping back to other tongues and mixing words from other languages, we were claiming our right to urban space and our right to produce cities of mixed tongues.

Coming back to Lefebvre, these everyday rhythms of multiple tongues slipping, mixing, claiming, crying for space and place are clearly far from the utopian ideals of nationalist monolingual spaces. And so the right to the city is also, among others, the right to produce the many cities that our tongues speak.”



Deja un comentario

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Salir /  Cambiar )

Imagen de Twitter

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Twitter. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s