Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

4 thoughts on “Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

  1. Just a quick story about a bilingual man I knew. My father was a professor of German language and literature at a small college in Colorado. One day a cowboy – from scuffed cowboy boots to skinny jeans to pearl-buttoned rodeo shirt to sweat-stained hat – slouched into his office and announced that he wanted to take “Perfesser Brandt’s German litracher seminar”. My father stiffened – he was very old-world himself – and barely maintained his civility while he pointed out to the fellow that the seminar required a very good knowledge of both spoken and written German. Did the cowboy know even a little German?

    Then the most extraordinary transformation took place. The cowboy swept the hat off his head, stoof to ramrod attention, and clicked his heels as he barked, “Jawohl, Herr Professor, vollkommen verstanden. Hoffentlich kann ich es noch gut genug.”

    It turned out he had been an orphan in post-war Berlin, found and adopted by a colonel who was a Texas rancher in peace-time. So the little German boy grew up a Texas cowboy. A goof one too; he got us front-row seats at the rodeo to watch him ride broncos!

    So yes, language makes the man, in a way.

    1. Chris: What a fantastic story – thanks so much sharing it (your comments have been gold!). Sometimes I hear Indians living in England speak in perfect Cockney accents, and then switch back to rustic Punjabi. Blows my mind every time.

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