Brussels is a bohemian city, sometimes criticized for her strangeness, sometimes idealized, but where 196 nationalities are welcome. This diversity is reflected in our student population and that can only make us happy or curious because 2020 is a decade of international agility!

How people talk about themselves, document themselves and reflect on themselves and their environment in all decades has been a free-thinking exercise, a shared process and responsibility. In gathering information about our experiences, our behavior, our history and our interactions rests great strength and the courage we need to construct ourselves and society. Bringing together various perspectives always forms the basis for new insights that you can redirect later.

That is the reason why I started a CERL-project two years ago. Rooted in the migration stories of our VUB students I wanted to research and document Brussels multilingualism and international agility skills.  More than 500 students took part in this project and I have only few words to tell you how mind blowing it has been.

The project started from a shared desire to get to know each other better.  Students are curious about their teachers and teachers about them. Getting to know each other takes time, but my students have thought me that taking that time is worth a lot of lessons.

At the VUB there are national and international students, national and foreign languages, but if you ask me those ideas are part of a great illusion concerning our identities. In Le Monolinguisme de l’autre written by French philosopher Jacques Derrida we can learn about we that speak more than one language, all of us that have been hosted by some people, somewhere today, yesterday or tomorrow. That is a point of view about multilingualism, in my opinion, that deserves to be explored even further.

Je n’ai qu’une langue, et, en même temps, de façon singulière et exemplaire, cette langue ne m’appartient pas […] Une histoire singulière a exacerbé chez moi cette loi universelle : une langue, ça n’appartient pas.

Indeed, we (will) love (foreign) languages because we are all somebody’s stranger hosted by another stranger. In the Academic Language Centre where I work VUB students learn to adopt languages, transform them with or without love or respect, because they want to or because they had to and most of all because they are adapting to our Brussels, European and international context.

Multilingualism is for a lot of us a resilient response to our globalized city and world.  This questions our philosophy and perceptions about language and identity. We are all evolving in an (un)perfect international space and sometimes this space is open, sometimes definitively closed and then again transformable. What is certain is that our jobs as (language) teachers puts us in a privileged position to accompany and learn about international agility, diversity sensitive communication skills, mediation skills, group-dynamics, conflict solving skills, co-creation skills, advocacy skills, media-education, etc.

Migration stories offer us wonderful life lessons that we must share so that the idea can spread and take us towards more harmony. The essential question asked is none other than who am I? How can I meet others if I don’t know who I am? By questioning your own history, its origins, the paths taken, your choices, you discover yourself richer, more human and ready to play the hyphens, the bridges between the various communities, the various cultures. When one becomes aware of these multiple identities, only than one is ready to open up to otherness; the other, also rich in his own experiences, the other with whom we necessarily share a path, the other that we will understand and with whom we will live and enrich ourselves. The experience, in fact, will continue because by listening to “the stranger”, I pacify him but I also pacify myself, I question myself, I reflect on myself and I necessarily advance on the path of life.

If you too are curious about all of these topics, then have a look at the Literature and Linguistics – Pratique du français movie.  They have an important message to send into the world!

To all of my students: I am so proud of you! Special thanks too to Omar Fassi Fehri for subtitling our video.

Julie Bertone is a language teacher at the Academic Centre for Language Tuition (VUB) and is part of the community engaged research and learning project at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). She holds a Master degree in French and Spanish literature and linguistics. Furthermore she is trained in intercultural communication and currently studying psychocorporal therapy (2y/4).