Mother tongue

I live in a place where I don’t speak the language, at least not beyond the basics. I live comfortably and easily here because almost everyone speaks English. Still, as the months pass, I’m increasingly aware of my deficiencies in Dutch. The introductory class we took back in April is a distant memory, so I decided that it was time to get back into some kind of language study. A free 3-week on-line class seemed like the right way to ease back into things. And then, in the middle of week two, I also resumed weekly French lessons with a tutor, after a break of about 8 months. Two foreign languages. Same time.

I had originally stopped my French lessons when I started the Dutch class, convinced that if I attempted to study two languages simultaneously, my head would explode. This time around, I had a different theory. I thought that learning two languages night somehow crack wide open the language center in my brain, and rules and grammar and structure would suddenly all make sense. In short, I hoped that my head would explode.


I am fascinated by bilingual or multilingual people. I always want to know when and why people code-switch, or what language they use at home, or what language they dream in. In my eyes, you polyglots basically have super powers. (You’re smarter than the rest of us! You could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease!)

In reality, I know that language acquisition is actually something that mere mortals can do. It’s likely that my French will never be fluent or un-accented, since I’ve acquired it as an adult. But it can be good. It can certainly be better, if I’m willing to put in the work.

And the other truth is that we’re all multilingual, even within the confines of our mother tongue.

If you speak English, if you have ever been to a ballet or seen an alligator. If you’ve ever talked about your angst or ennui, played a guitar, smoked marijuana, sipped champagne on a yacht or studied algebra in the boondocks, you have already been speaking the language of the other.

-Ana Menéndez, “Are We Different People in Different Languages?”

My current language-learning hero is writer Lydia Davis. While I have yet to read her work, I read an interview in which she discusses both the reasoning and the process of teaching herself Norwegian. Davis says:

“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”

Imagine: to invest the time and labor of teaching oneself another language – and doing so well enough to make a faithful translation –  as a way to return the gift of your own translator. The curiosity, respect, and playfulness that Davis brings to her learning is inspiring. She is a language detective, a decoder. And she is a reminder to me of the rich rewards that come from study and exploration of a language not (yet) our own.

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