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  • Michelle Cook

Port-ing-lish

I am a child of two cultures and I wield two tongues. I have shaped my life to allow me to exist in both places. When I cannot live between them, I exercise the facets of my identity connected to each culture by wielding both Portuguese and English. Sometimes I still imagine myself as if in a medieval-stretcher, straining to place one foot in England whilst keeping the other firmly rooted in Mozambique, finding lightness in the idea that my head would hover somewhere over the jungles of Virunga, watching the gorillas.


How much language shapes how we communicate amazes and unnerves me. It is, in a way, the most effective instrument of social conditioning: we are manipulated to act in accordance to the contexts in which we learn it. I maintain that I am able to win more arguments in Portuguese—the language I use at home—than in English.


Discussions around bilingualism are gaining momentum, particularly in African societies where the mother tongue is not the lingua franca through which we teach and learn. For youth in primary education the argument is very strong : how can we teach holistically if aspects of a child’s identity are located in a language that isn’t used in the classroom? How successfully can you integrate logic AND empathy into the learning process, if critical thinking is misaligned with interpersonal communication skills?


This reflection comes six months into working with UNESCO in Mozambique. Multilingualism promotes inclusivity and connectedness. For me, working in Portuguese for the first time in my life has allowed me to level both tongues so that each is logical and scientific, emotive and familial. I am flying to the Northern hemisphere soon, clutching the project proposal for Heritage in Young Hands close to my chest, taking with me the strong belief that in education, professional environments and public spaces like museums and cultural centres, our responses should not be conditioned by what we cannot articulate.



Art by Daniel Stolle, "Inner Voice"

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© Michelle Cook 2019