Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Languages

Anyone who has learned a foreign language – or at least anybody who has learned one well enough to speak it meaningfully – can attest how personality changes when shifting from one language to the next. The subtleties of each language – its unique lexicon, the pace of sentence formation, the values embodied in its grammar – gently nudge our thoughts into well-traveled channels that influence the way we perceive the world, how we articulate what we see, the ways we react to it, our feelings, and, ultimately, the framework for how we act and justify our actions. Speaking different languages, we change as a result.

A friend of mine recently expressed it as: “My Chinese-speaking self is different from my English-speaking self.” And I think anyone who lives comfortably among multiple languages can identify with this. In fact, one of the most painful things about acquiring and speaking a foreign language – in the beginning, especially – is the total loss of personality in that language. The speaker's expressiveness is robbed of subtlety. Emotions that could be rendered so easily in one's native language now become impossible to convey in the new one – either through one's own lack of knowledge, or, sometimes, through limitations of the language itself. It is not until much later, when you have begun to master the second language, that you are freed to learn new and vital expressions to articulate what has been left behind. Sometimes these are fair approximations of the emotions you express in your own language; other times, they come entirely unannounced, unfamiliar and new – ideas that cannot be articulated even in your language. Often it is only by their expression that you become aware of the existence of these emotions at all: for these “emotions” do not exist in other languages. In time, as you become more proficient in the new language, you can begin to articulate these new emotions comfortably, to internalize them, to feel them naturally and without a corresponding need for their articulation – such that in time you may even begin to compare them as equals, to recognize the expressive “shortcomings” of your own language. Being in control of multiple languages, therefore, means becoming more aware of how futile any given language is in articulating our inner selves – how we are never fully able to express the extent of who we are as human beings due to the specific limitations of the specific languages we speak.

Each language brings out certain elements of our inborn nature. These elements are there, within each of us, but are given expression only if the right language comes along to release them. Language being a relatively arbitrary construct, it’s interesting to wonder which elements of our nature are being given expression by the languages we speak, and which are not.

Even more fascinating is to wonder of those that are given expression whether one or another is closer to the core of one’s true self. If my English self is different from my Russian self, which of them is the real me? While most people will assume that their dominant language is their “real” one, it would seem highly coincidental, given the wide range of languages that they might otherwise be speaking, that this would ever be the case. How likely is it that the language you happen to speak really is the best one to express the person you really are? Often, it seems, we lose sight of the extent to which our thoughts and feelings are not true expressions of our real selves, but simple conveniences of language. More probably, it is not that our native tongue is any more expressive of who we are but that we are – or become – what our native tongue best expresses.

I can only guess how many hidden dimensions of my personality are never given expression due to my lack of language. My German self. My Japanese self. My Arabic self. All of them are there, yet none are allowed to come out. Somehow, I lose a little of my humanity for not knowing them. Knowing only what I know, I am a sliver of who I might be, just as my words are nothing more than the arbitrary expression of those sides of me that can be released by the words I am able to think and speak.

And so, as humans, we are condemned to become merely what we are able to become, while the seeds of who we really are lie buried deep within us, dormant and shriveled, waiting for the life-giving water of language.