The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrendering the Languages of Home
September 23, 2020 4:23 AM   Subscribe

Learning a language as an adult or in your teens, especially with a history of repeated migrations between languages and countries, is extraordinarily difficult. It isn’t just about swallowing new words like passion fruit that glides down your throat. It’s like chewing on stones breaking your teeth in order to seed the foundations of that new language on your tongue already heavy with many idioms. In other words, it’s more than just words. It is about acquiring metaphors, learning the nuances, the synonyms, the history of words, the cultures, the rhythm of its roots. What is a cliche to a native speaker is a gem to a new learner. [SL LitHub]
posted by ellieBOA (16 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I've wanted to learn Arabic since a few years ago, when I took a linguistics class and the professor spoke and wrote Arabic. Gorgeous language.

Lately I've been really enjoying the poetry of Iranian-American poet and scholar Kaveh Akbar. A good chunk of his work wrestles with his relationship with his native language Persian (he uses that name for the language) and often includes wonderfully idiomatic phrases like
Nunesh tu-ye roghan-e.
Literally: His bread is in oil.
Meaning: Said about a person who’s doing financially well.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:07 AM on September 23, 2020 [9 favorites]

A fair amount of the author’s trajectory across languages comports with my own, just minus the duress - I wonder whether that‘s maybe why I’ve found the lingual shapeshifting to be similarly myriad (and empowering) but less fraught, less grave. There are multiplicities in polyglottery, I guess. (Thanks for the link/read.)
posted by progosk at 6:17 AM on September 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

moving to another country, and learning a new language was not the easiest and I really had to struggle to get over the initial low level while out and about in the new city. I recently learned a new phrase that perfectly summed-up my journey: "Embarrassment is the cost of entry". I had to embrace it and press on.
posted by alchemist at 7:00 AM on September 23, 2020 [20 favorites]

Thank you, ellieBOA. What a beautiful and sorrowful post. Many years ago I tried to tell a brother-in-law and his wife that my mother-in-law really wanted to travel. The guy demurred. I insisted. Then he started laughing and I laughed too, after he explained. I had been saying that she wanted to die instead of travel.

I have never felt at home in Swedish, never felt like myself when I use it. That is probably because I am unwilling to give up English long enough to become as fluent in Swedish as I would like. Knowing how people in Sweden (and elsewhere) judge those of us who are not native speakers, I always use English when I am dealing with doctors and officials. That way, they do not question my intelligence although they may question other things.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:20 AM on September 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

I studied French in school, and then spent an exchange year in Brazil. I knew I was finally learning Portuguese when I no longer found a French word when searching for a Portuguese one. Now 25 years later, I am learning French again, and it is slow and painful, but I feel like I am finally getting somewhere because I no longer find Portuguese words when searching for French ones. It seems my brain will allow me to be (modestly) bilingual, but only that. Nothing more. If I want a different second language, I have to give up the one that came before.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:30 AM on September 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

This was a beautiful essay, I think I will request the book from the library now. I wonder if the author feels more open to learning French/Flemish now that his English book is in the world, or if he will carve out space in his life for English forever.
posted by Maarika at 7:51 AM on September 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

I live in France and speak French as a second language to a high degree of proficiency. I think I'm only really comfortable--like unselfconsciously comfortable--speaking it around people I know because that moment that always comes when I'm speaking more than a few words to someone I don't know. . . that moment where, based on imperceptible cues in the rhythm and timing of my French they realize that I'm not a native speaker, not one of them, but a foreigner, exhausts me. I've been here for years and years. . . when do I get to just be a normal person instead of a foreigner? Everyone speaking a foreign language remains confronted with this problem. I'm fortunate that in France this is less of a handicap than I feel like it must be in the US, where I come from.

I also speak Portuguese with gleeful abandon because although I speak it fluently and understand the grammar and phonology, I make mistakes and I don't care because hey, look at me go speaking Portuguese! I'll talk to anyone and everyone in Portugal or Brazil. I'd love to be so carefree in French.

Another thought: I knew I had really mastered French when my friends and acquaintances stopped telling me I speak French well. I haven't heard this in an age. Instead, now, when I do occasionally mess up a noun's gender or get tied up over a round-vowel and glide progression, they erupt in laughter because of my mistake. That's the mark of mastering a foreign language, I decided.

Finally: I really miss using my native Appalachian drawl.
posted by os tuberoes at 8:30 AM on September 23, 2020 [21 favorites]

What is a cliche to a native speaker is a gem to a new learner.

I was tremendously pleased yesterday to introduce my French therapist to the phrase "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:22 AM on September 23, 2020 [18 favorites]

I can't really speak from the author's position: my migrations and self-uprooting have been a reflection of my privilege. But I can relate to the fundamental metamorphosis a change in language requires. By learning a new language as an (young) adult I found myself needing to become comfortable with a new me, with a different role in interpersonal relations and as such a different role in my adopted society.
It's also been interesting having to adopt a more international form of English, which takes a couple of days to wear off every time I visit home. Just as an example: growing up I always called all canned or bottled soft drinks "coke" since this was a treat I only got at my grandparents'. Going to school I learned that the kids in my area called it "pop", but now to be understood I have to call i "soda".
posted by St. Oops at 9:29 AM on September 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

>Another thought: I knew I had really mastered French when my friends and acquaintances stopped telling me I speak French well. I haven't heard this in an age. Instead, now, when I do occasionally mess up a noun's gender or get tied up over a round-vowel and glide progression, they erupt in laughter because of my mistake. That's the mark of mastering a foreign language, I decided.

I knew my (American) accent had become less atrocious when people stopped telling me "wow, you have no accent!" and started asking "... Are your parents American?"
posted by Cozybee at 9:59 AM on September 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

> What is a cliche to a native speaker is a gem to a new learner.

Yeah, this. After, what , 15 years, I still like a good pun in English way more than I should... and I hate almost all of them in German. Nothing I can do about it, except wait it out I guess...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 10:44 AM on September 23, 2020 [3 favorites]

My parents were both born here to immigrant parents and Polish was their first language. When I was growing up they spoke it when they wanted to talk about adult things in my presence. They never taught me and I never learned more than a few scattered words. Some of my cousins, born to aunts and uncles who were immigrants, did speak it to a point but not me.
posted by tommasz at 2:04 PM on September 23, 2020

Thanks for posting this. Always in awe of people who are able to write beautifully in a second language, while also acknowledging the fact that writing in English may not be a "choice" freely made at all, and can often come at the expense of an author's mother tongue.

I am guessing "Aramaic" is a typo in the tag and should be changed to "Amharic".
posted by Corduroy at 2:25 PM on September 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

I grew up in New York in a sea of languages, three in our house hold, five more on the street, I grew up with Yiddish in our house, my Mom spoke Hungarian to us when we were little, and all the kids in our Bronx neighborhood spoke Italian, Ukrainian or German. All us kids spoke English to each other with bits of Italian tossed in. (Today my old neighborhood speaks mostly Dominican Spanish.) By High School I was functionally monolingual in English.

After thirty years of living in Budapest I am fluent in Hungarian, but constantly aware of my foreign-ness whenever I have to speak to officials or strangers. If I want to hide my accent I can affect a camouflaged accent - my uncle's archaic 1930s country bumpkin or maybe a Transylvanian peasant - but what comes out of my mouth naturally immediately marks me as a foreigner in a linguistic landscape where "foreigner" means "somebody who could never comprehend us in our secret language." If a tourist learns a few dozen phrases Hungarians will gush over the sympathetic fellow who adorably dared to wrap his tongue around our impenetrable consonants in order to ask for directions. But if you are a fluent speaker - and citizen, no less - who accidentally misuses a locality identifier ending (i.e.; one is in "Budapest-en" but you may be in "Kolozsvar-ott" or in "Veszprem-ben"... each city has a different ending for "being in the city") or commit the sin of not lengthening your final vowel you are immediately suspect... of not being "Hungarian enough." And written Hungarian is quite different from the everyday spoken language... as any Hungarian schoolkid knows. So I have to explain to city officials when I register for something that Pardon me, but I was not raised in Hungary and I was not educated in Hungarian and I can not understand this registration form and suddenly you are not only talking like a visiting character on "I Love Lucy" but you are functionally illiterate as well.

Like os tuberoes when he is in Portugal, I feel liberated from those constraints when I am in Romania speaking Romanian. Nobody in Romania expects a foreigner to speak Romanian. Nobody ever points out your mistakes. Everybody wants to invite you home to eat their Mom's cooking and show you off. I am not fluent, and learned what I do use from peasants in one of the more drawl-y rural areas, but Hey, look at me, I'm speaking Romanian!

I chose to relearn Yiddish because I was spending a lot of time in Romania with elderly Jews who didn't speak English, and it gave them great pleasure to see a young person (this was back when I was "young") speaking Yiddish. I had entirely forgotten most of my Yiddish, and I had to buy books to teach myself (not easy considering the Yiddish alef-beys) but it was a lot easier than learning Hungarian again.

I have incredible respect for Sulaiman Addonia and anyone who can write in a language they learned as an adult. As for me... never going to happen.
posted by zaelic at 3:34 AM on September 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

you are immediately suspect... of not being "Hungarian enough."

For me that moment was when the friendly Deutsche Bahn lady on the phone - to whom I found myself confessing that, yes, I had said “5 Uhr”, but actually I’d meant “17 Uhr” - couldn’t suppress a quick «Deutsche Sprach’, schwere Sprach‘...», clearly relishing that she had spotted the acquired foreignness whereby I’d forfeited my national pedigree, despite my native pronunciation.

Typically, I’m privileged to be able to assimilate to a Zelig-like, chameleonic degree amongst the speakers of my various European languages; I can’t find the precise quote that I remember being in Shaw’s Pygmalion, about a certain excessive care about the quality of one’s English being a distinguishing mark of a foreigner, more often than not; I guess we do get very caught up in what language enables (and disables) for us.
posted by progosk at 7:49 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Today marks a milestone for me: it's the first time that a word for a thing (a grater: rallador) popped up in my head earlier in Spanish than in English. Learning Spanish as an adult has been a long tortuous journey swinging between the gleeful abandon (sensu os tuberoes) of the early days and now being painfully conscious of errors but not knowing how to fix them in the moment. The other day I had to decline a role in my institute because even though my spoken Spanish is decent, and my written Spanish middling, my knowledge of formal bureaucratic Mexican Spanish is abysmal. It is intimidating; the final frontier.
posted by dhruva at 1:34 PM on September 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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