On Finding Determination from the In-Between Space of Lingual Limbo

This whole day, my fingers have been itching to write.  Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since I could express myself fully and eloquently in any language, or maybe because I simply have something to say.

I was titillated by an article a friend posted today, titled Are We Different People in Different Languages?  My brain gives a resounding “yes” every time I read that phrase, as this is a concept I have verbally dipped my toes into in discussion with various multilingual friends.  One such friend, a native speaker of English and a fluent speaker of Brazilian Portuguese, told me that “we are all like flashlights and different languages are like those colored filters you place on top.”  I love this image and this idea, that we are seen and see ourselves in a different light through each language, or that we shine in a different color in different languages…there are a million ways to play with interpreting this image.

But particularly interesting, in my own interpretation, is that if the languages are the color, then is the clarity, the white light, our essential selves?  And would you say your clear light is your mother tongue, or is your essential self beyond language?  Are we essentially something that has no verbal expression?  I’ll leave that thought there — you can choose to go down the path of introspection and perhaps over-philosophical linguistic self-exploration, or not.

The author of the article, Ana Menéndez, talks about some of the difficulties faced by immigrants struggling to express themselves in a new language, a new vernacular.  And I have to say that our relationships with our languages have everything to do with the circumstances in which we learned them.  I’ll quote Eva Hoffman here because she said it so well that I can’t say it better.

Eva Hoffman in her memoir Lost in Translation writes about emigrating from Poland to Vancouver at the age of 13 and encountering the shock of the new language.

She writes: “The problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.”

It does not evoke.

Right there.  That is my problem with Spanish.  It does not evoke, not for me.  Perhaps it is because my brain is simply not as “compatible” with Spanish as with Brazilian Portuguese, to use the wonderful word of an acquaintance fluent in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English.  He feels the same way as I do;  Spanish is not our “thing.”  English is his.  Portuguese is mine.

But why?  I asked myself.  Why do I have such a hard time with the phrasing in Spanish?  Why does it not flow from my lips like Portuguese does?  Why do I not revel in the subtleties of pronunciation that seem to come so naturally in Portuguese?

Maybe it is because I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.  I was by no means not surrounded by it — I’m from New Mexico, for goodness’ sake.  But it was also not necessarily revered in my family.  The only influence it has on my heritage is a messy conquest (as conquests usually are) by the Spanish in islands in Asia that I’ve only visited twice in my life.

And I can’t say it’s not beautiful.  But the beauty I find in Spanish comes from the poetry, from the writers who have taken the language and placed it in a form that speaks more to my heart, something fluid and metaphorical and much more like the phrasing that speaks to me in English.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish I loved Spanish more.  I wish I loved it so much that all I wanted was to throw myself into its consonants and vowels, to master its fricatives and its nasals, its indirect complements, its prepositions and its vernaculars and its variants.  I wish I loved it so much that I would fall in love with one of its native speakers and want nothing more to be appropriated into its culture and the exclusivity that comes with having an accent so good you are mistaken for being from ________.

Basically, I wish I could replicate my love for Portuguese in Spanish.  Because I have this close, personal, heart-wrenching relationship with a língua lusófona.  I grew up hearing it, I grew up listening to its rich nasals and lilting cadence used in jest, in the expression of beauty, in the ugliness of anger, in the technical terms of survival skills and the odd specificity of dance and the human body.  I fell for its speakers, and I was accepted by them.

This time in Spain has been hard only because of the language.  And when I write that it makes me laugh.  “Only because of the language.”  Only because it’s been almost three months since I said anything with correct grammar.  Only because I haven’t been able to express a truly intelligent concept or ask a truly specific question since last semester at my home university.  I’ve just been scraping by using the few, essential words at my disposal.  Language is, after all, only just the way we communicate with each other.  No big deal.

Perhaps language is not the only way of communicating.  But it’s a big part of it.  And I am missing most of the pieces that make me the me that I am in English, and Portuguese.

But I don’t want to give up!  Although I still commit errors in gender with almost every noun, although I falter and stutter and appear idiotic, although I have yet to complete an order in a restaurant with any kind of fluidity, I want to love Spanish.

We learned a beautiful word in Greek the other day.  Προσμενω.  Prosméno, it’s a verb, very poetic.  It means, for lack of an equivalent in English, “to wait for something or someone that doesn’t come, continuously, for a long time.”  And this word somehow erased all of the frustration I had been feeling, all of the resentment towards Greek’s noun cases and verb conjugations and formations of its aorist and the need to place numbers and days of the week in the accusative.  All of that gone, poof, with one single word.

Προσμενω reminded me why I study languages, why I chose to walk down this path at all.  Each language has its own way of looking at the world, and as we learn the vocabulary and immerse ourselves in this new form of expression, we diversify who we are.  My Linguistic major friend tells me that this is known as Linguistic Relativity Theory.  As we find the phrases we like and we use them over and over again, we define a new way of phrasing ourselves.  And we relate differently to the world around us.

And this knowledge gives me determination.  I want to keep amplifying myself as I learn these new tongues.  I want to hear and embody their inexplicable phrases, to feel the nonverbal concepts behind the most complex and nuanced words.  Although it’s hard and although I struggle and although I may never get it perfect, I will keep trying!

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