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Monday, January 01, 2007

What are you optimistic about?

I wrote this text in reply to the annual question John Brockman launched for his World Question Center. Do not quote without permission.

I'm optimistic about Europe. On May 30th 2005, the day after the French rejected in a referendum the project of the European Constitution, I was traveling on the Thalys high speed train from Paris to Brussels for a committee meeting at the European Community. The train was full people of my age—in their late thirties—going to Brussels as "experts" in various domains to attend meetings and participate in various EC projects. I looked around and started chatting with my neighbors. The conversation was light, mainly about restaurants and bars in Brussels or new exhibitions and movies. Most of the people I spoke with came from more than one cultural background, with two or more nationalities in the family: Say, father from Germany, mother from Ireland, grown up in Rotterdam. All of us were at least bilingual, many trilingual or more. I quickly realized that asking the opening question of ordinary train encounters, "Where are you from?" had become patently obsolete. The image was quite at odds with the newspapers' and politicians' cliché of the prototypical EC officer as a grey, square, hideously boring civil servant in a checkered jacket, wasting time inventing useless bureaucratic rules. My neighbors epitomized the deep cultural change that is now taking place in Europe. A new generation has grown up, people born more than a quarter of century after the end of the Second World War and now moving around Europe to study and work, meeting, dating, marrying, and having children with people from other European countries, and doing so as a matter of course.

More and more European children grow up multilingual. They are unlike immigrants born in one culture and having to grow up in another. They are unlike children growing up in a monolingual, monocultural family that happen to be located in a wider multicultural environment. For the children I am talking about, cultural and linguistic diversity is not just outside them in the society at large, it is part of their own, implanted in their minds as novel kind of cultural identity. Multilingualism is going to become an existential condition in Europe, and this is really good news for a continent in which national identities have been so powerful and have caused so much pain and tragedies in the past.

Multilingualism however is not only an existential condition: it has also an impact on our cognitive life. Recent research in developmental psychology shows that bilingual children are faster in developing the ability to understand the mental states of others. Most children under four fail to demonstrate any understanding of the fact that a person's behavior is based not on the way things are but rather on beliefs—true or false—the person has about the way things are. Bilingual children, intriguingly, succeed in what is known as the "False Belief Task" several months earlier than do monolingual. A likely interpretation of these findings is that bilingual children have a more fine grained ability to understand their social environment, and in particular, a greater awareness of the fact that different people may represent reality in different ways. My bilingual six-year-old son makes mistakes in French and in Italian, but never confuses contexts in which it is more appropriate to use one language than the other, including contexts where there are other bilinguals.

I believe that active multilingualism in Europe will help produce a new generation of cognitively more flexible children who will have integrated from the onset in their own identity and their own cognition their mixed cultural background. It will become impossible for educational institutions around Europe to inflict to these individually multicultural students their local "sacred values" based on Higher Civilization, greater bravery, spiritual superiority, or what have you. They will have to update their educational programs for young people who recognize themselves neither in local foundational myths, nor in a feel-good Multiculturalism predicated upon the maintenance of sharply distinct cultural identities. This will help new generations to get rid of "unreal loyalties", to use the words of Virginia Woolf, to nation, flag or local customs and manners. Multilingual citizens of a European space will be more tolerant and less sensitive to local allegiances and partialities. Their tolerance of diverse cultural identities, in the old "mono" style or recomposed, will be built from within, and not learned as a social norm.

All this may be just wishful thinking, projecting my own personal trajectory on the future of Europe. But I can't help thinking that being multilingual is the best and cheapest antidote to cultural intolerance to be found today. And a way of going beyond the empty label of "multiculturalism" by experiencing a plural culture from within. And, of course, this is not just an European issue.