I thought I’d share another excerpt from one of the essays found in The Therapy of Puppy School. ‘Linguistic Identity’ delves into what has come to fascinate me over the years living here – what language means to us, how we acquire it and what happens when we don’t have it.
The passages I have pulled out of the larger essay do not necessarily flow on from one another. I have simply chosen the bits I think are interesting and you might like to read.
I grew up monolingual, thinking my auntie from Switzerland with her five languages was some sort of magician. Sure, I had friends with parents who spoke a different language and one set of cousins had a Dutch Oma, but languages themselves remained distant and mysterious, things I simply wasn’t bestowed with beyond the one I had. At school, we started French in Year Five and Latin in Year Seven and I promptly dropped both as soon as I could. They didn’t come easily, or at least the way they were taught didn’t suit the way I learnt, and so I got rid of them. In Year Nine, we were told we could choose a language to carry into the final three years of high school and to assist us in this choice, we sampled a few classes in each of the available languages. That is where I first met German. It was a brief, brief affair. In fact, I was sick for one of the two sample classes and from the other one all I recall, as I am sure all the entire class recalls, is ‘das ist mein Hamburger.’ I didn’t end up choosing any language to take into my final years of high school and so it wasn’t until I arrived in Germany at twenty-five years old, that my real relationship with German began. But – and I can say this now with the knowledge borne of hindsight – it wasn’t just that I entered a deeply humbling somewhat cantankerous relationship with German: the mystery of what a language is and how one acquires it and what it means to people began to slowly clarify and become something of an intellectual companion.
As the years have passed in which my adult life has straddled two languages, I have developed a natural interest in both what language means to one’s identity and the various parts of the language acquisition process. I read, once, about the idea of a linguistic identity and what can happen when we lose it and I wondered if that is what happened to me, back in the early years of this seismic change I brought upon myself. The language or languages we speak are vital to how we see the world. Language forms an elemental part of our identity. With it, we can understand our past and visualise a future. We can understand our relationships with others and with the many communities of which we are members. We can make sense of time and space. We can access and partake of social mores and conventions. I took that away from myself, temporarily, underestimating – in my youthful naivete and determination to experience something else – the effect it would have on me for years to follow. When I met the man who would become my husband, he rescued that part of me that was flailing. He had no interest in telling me how I should learn German or indeed that I even should. He merely had an interest in me and getting to know me in whatever manner that was possible. And so it was that our relationship and the quiet support that formed its very foundation, helped me try again.
This part of belonging, the linguistic part of it, is a long process and it is not visible to those who already belong. It is duck-swimming-across-lake stuff, the feet always moving, the motivation behind almost every movement invisible but powerfully propellant. To find one’s place, or to carve it out within a space that is new to you, is to constantly push. Push forward, through, into, out there, onwards. It is to repeatedly show up, join in, give it a red hot go, suck it up, try. Reach out, make friends, organise things, attend all sorts of things, make an idiot of yourself, laugh at yourself, search fruitlessly for the right words, blunder about in an effort to maintain the most basic conversation. It is to treat the most ordinary, taken-for-granted social situations as language lessons and cultural research. It is to do nothing unthinkingly, with the ease and type of complete and innate certainty you have with your own language. I recently had the revelation that, for whatever reason, I have long expected that at some point, I will be finished with this process. Like a crash course, this sense of pushing myself, will end. What an idiotic assumption and what an embarrassingly long time it took to realise that this will never end. BUt at the same time, what a hugely freeing realisation. It won’t ever end but I also don’t have to be perfect, now. This is a project. I am permitted to simply keep going, to keep building block by block. Like with every other challenging part of life – parenting, making sense of the world, relationships – I don’t need all the answers now.