My Language, My Self – A Personal Essay

One of the most delightful words I have come across in Portuguese is beija-flor. Kiss-flower. Doesn’t that sound pretty? Can you guess what it might be? It means “hummingbird.” Compared to the rather utilitarian onomatopoeia in English, isn’t beija-flor so much more visual, metaphorical, even sensual? One of the best things about learning language as an adult is that you have the ability to marvel at language, to discover new ways of expression.

I was ten years old when I learned my first foreign language. Growing up in rural West Virginia, I had had little prior contact to any language aside from English. But when my mother and I moved to Germany, there was no question: I would learn German and I would attend a German school. Some may consider this to be an ideal language learning experience—I was at a young age and in a complete immersion environment. Moreover, none of my fellow students could speak English yet. I can still recall our 5th grade English teacher asking our class whether they thought they would learn English more quickly than I would learn German. Though they all enthusiastically agreed they would have the upper hand, I proved them wrong. Of course, I experienced a good amount of frustration during this time, too. Writing was a tortuous struggle and it took years before my written German caught up to my spoken German. And I remember trying to read my first book in German—and promptly throwing it down in anger and tears. So many words I didn’t understand! Nevertheless, within six months, I was speaking German fluently; by a year, no one could distinguish me from a native speaker.

Bom Dia! Tudo bom?

Fast forward two decades and I now find myself in another curious linguistic situation. For the past year and a half, I have lived in Brazil and have made various attempts at learning Portuguese. I have taken classes, worked with a tutor and am currently meeting with a language mentor on a weekly basis while participating in an online distance learning course. I used post-it notes around our entire apartment, labeling everything from our refrigerator to our shower head in Portuguese. And I try, whenever possible, to make small talk about topics I am able to understand (you guessed it: the weather, food, and babies!).

Ironically, as a language teacher of 10+ years, I know exactly what else I should be doing to become more proficient in Portuguese. I should be reading Brazilian newspapers, watching Brazilian telenovelas, listening to Brazilian music. I should be dedicating several hours a day to memorizing all verb forms and their various vowel endings. I should be reviewing vocabulary flashcards on a regular basis. This is, after all, what I would expect from my students of German.

But I haven’t been fully able (or willing) to commit to Portuguese. So, what’s with this perceived reticence? What is holding me back?

Part of it, I think, is the fact that learning a new language requires a re-wiring on the learner’s behalf. Things that you knew to be true in your native language (or any language you learned prior to this one) no longer apply. For example, the Subjunctivo do Futuro in Portuguese is perceived very differently than Konjunktiv II in German. I recently learned that you use the Subjunctivo do Futuro even when you are talking about concrete plans in the future–because they have not yet happened and are still in your “imagination”, as my mentor put it. I found this extremely frustrating, because in German the subjunctive is reserved only for hypothetical situations, wishes and polite requests. But I also had an epiphany: the Brazilians approach the future with a far greater amount of doubt and skepticism than Germans! I suddenly felt I had gained a deeper insight into the way the Brazilian mind works. Language truly does shape the way you perceive and process the world.

You must also be willing to give up a part of yourself, to accept the humility and ignorance that inevitably accompanies language learning. You have to be willing to make many, many mistakes, to be misunderstood and to feel like a child. Over and over again. You desperately feel the need to convince people that you are, in fact, an intelligent, thinking and competent human in your other language(s). Learning a language takes a tremendous amount of courage.

At the same time, you need to be open to the prospects of taking on a different persona in your new language. When I used to teach at the immersion Language Schools in Middlebury, there was a cautionary tale that circulated each summer about two students of Russian who fell in love with each other during their program. At the end of the summer, when the Language Pledge was lifted and they were permitted to speak English again, their attraction for one another quickly dissipated and they went their separate ways. Love, for them, appeared to work only in Russian and did not translate to their English selves.

Maybe I am hesitant to create another linguistic self, because I already feel so comfortable in my split German/English identity. How would a Portuguese “me” fit in to the mix? How much effort would it take to make that shift happen–really, truly happen? What will it take to get me to that point?

Muttersprache

Multilingualism among expat children is the norm (truly, I cannot think of any family I know whose children are monolingual). And though policy makers back at home in the States are unwilling to see the benefits, countless studies confirm the advantages of multilingualism, particularly among children.

I always imagined I would raise my child bilingually, in English and in German. When I was pregnant, I read up on different theories and methods of early bilingual education. But when my son was born, I could not bring myself to consistently speak in German to him. I felt like I was not being my “authentic” self. All of the nursery rhymes, songs and games I knew were in English. My early childhood was in English. Yes, I could try to learn these in German, but I would be using them in a sort of emotional void, robbed of all nostalgia. And therefore I’d be missing out on a beautifully unique opportunity to emotionally connect with my son, the way my mother and grandmother connected with me. It is therefore perhaps logical that “native language” is Muttersprache (mother language) in German; a native speaker is Muttersprachler. It turns out that the language I want my son to learn from me, his mother, is primarily English.

And, not surprisingly, his second (or: other first?) language is Portuguese, which he is exposed to at least four hours every day at daycare. For our current situation, this makes a lot of sense; our next post will be Mozambique, another Portuguese-speaking country, so he will continue learning Portuguese there. I do hope to introduce German to him in the future, but for the moment, we are sticking to these two.

Interestingly, I find myself gravitating toward Portuguese words when talking about my son. Berço sometimes comes to mind more quickly than “crib”, or I ask my husband where the mamadeira is instead of our baby’s bottle. While my son continues to babble in baby talk, my husband and I are eagerly awaiting to hear whether his first words will be in English or Portuguese.

And maybe, just maybe, watching my son’s Portuguese self begin to take shape is the necessary motivation I need to take the plunge and cultivate my own linguistic self in Portuguese.

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One thought on “My Language, My Self – A Personal Essay

  1. As much as I loved the post about our German class, I feel I have to comment on this post because it gave me so much to think about. I never really thought about learning a language that way. But it does make sense. As I was learning English, I always felt rather rebellious about the fact that teachers would try to correct my intonation. I was saying the words in the right order, did they want to take that from me too? I believe now I felt then I was being robbed from my own expression, the one I had acquired in my first language, if I tried to dub my thoughts into English. Now I realize it might be that I’m still resisting to take on that different persona mentioned in the text.
    Awesome post!
    Thank you for the great semester!

    Like

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