Bilingual Knowledge/Bilingual Stories

Palestinian-Israeli novelist, columnist and TV-writer Sayed Kashua, Anastasia Giannakidou (University of Chicago, Linguistics) and Na’ama Rokem (University of Chicago, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) explore the possibilities and limits of bilingualism in a project that creates a crossover between different methods of engaging the question, “what do bilinguals know?

What do bilinguals know? There are multiple answers to this question, from multiple disciplinary points of view. Syntacticians compare the representation of implicit knowledge of grammar in the minds of native speakers of two languages in contrast with speakers of one. Psycholinguists study the specificities of language acquisition in bilingual environments. Experimentalist cognitive psychologists have shown that bilinguals possess cognitive skills that distinguish them from monolinguals, for example in the field designated as executive function. In other words, they show that bilinguals know how to navigate an excess of information and prioritize tasks. Sociolinguists and cultural anthropologists investigate the forms of social knowledge that allow bilinguals to effectively and appropriately code-switch and mix languages in conversation and instruct them on when to avoid doing so. Literature offers more answers still. Texts that mix languages or thematize bilingualism and language mixture tell stories about lives lived between languages and what becomes known in them. And literary scholars who read these texts account for this knowledge and the forms of literary expression through which it is represented.

The proposed collaboration brings together a novelist, a linguist and a literary scholar in order to create a crossover between different ways of asking the question what bilinguals know and to reflect on the methods employed in answering it.

When Sayed Kashua – a Palestinian Israeli author whose novels, journalism and TV writing all inhabit the uncomfortable space between his two languages, Hebrew and Arabic – visited the University of Chicago last year, he participated in a discussion about the poetics and the politics of bilingualism. Describing his current writing project, he said: “If I could, I would write a bilingual novel in Hebrew and Arabic. But that, of course, is impossible.” Our collaboration takes as its point of departure the question: is it really impossible? What would it mean to write such a novel? How would one translate it into Hebrew or Arabic? Or into English? To what extent can such a literary experiment build on the empirical knowledge that different disciplines have accumulated about bilingualism? And what can such a novel, in its turn, contribute to this accumulation of knowledge? And if indeed writing such a bilingual novel (in these languages, at this moment in time) were impossible, what would that teach us?

We plan to begin our conversation by reading selections from the different fields of scholarship mentioned above – linguistics, psycholoinguistics, cognitive psychology, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, poetics, literary history, literary theory – using our diverse perspectives and expertise to “translate” them for one another. The term translation (with or without scare-quotes) is crucial to setting up this conversation. For one of our wagers is that such a discussion of bilingualism facilitates its own form of disciplinary and artistic bilingualism (or multilingualism) and creates its own forms of bi- (or multi-) lingual knowledge. As we train ourselves to become bilinguals in this sense, we can begin to mix languages and switch codes. We can then ask: how would a novelist design a psychological experiment with bilingual children or adults? Can the linguist incorporate bilingual poetry into her syntactic analysis? Can we find shared themes/patterns/questions across the different modes of inquiry? And what do they mean?