Mother tongues

When I was about 8 or 9 I renounced Romanian and began to think and dream exclusively in English. To renounce my mother tongue was an active decision. I remember the day that I said to myself, “English is my language now and I must learn it and embrace it.” I said this immediately following a spelling test in which I misspelled “Dad”; I wrote down “Dod.” I had just started school. What was I thinking? I was overthinking, in the wrong language. For me North America was a new world—and in this new world English was the key: the key to community, the key to networks, the key to sociality, the key to friendship, the key to culture, the key to citizenship, the key to everything.

And besides, I could not write well in Romanian; I struggled with grammar and felt as though I was always behind. I was only 7. People would tell me that Romanian “is an easy language because it’s phonetic and it has very strict rules. You just need to memorize the rules.” I could not memorize the rules. Nevertheless, I could speak it fairly well and it was the language I used to think and articulate my thoughts. I recall taking private English lessons with a pleasant man sporting a Tom Selleck moustache. He would have me watch cartoons and we would translate words together and my parents would pay him and I gather they thought I was well on my way to mastering the language; they did not know at the time that I would go on to misspell “Dad.”

I embraced English as the language of my thoughts and dreams, but there are times when English continues to be a foreign language to me. Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel as though we are completely estranged. It is often a bitter struggle and it’s why this blog exist (but if my publishing rate is any indication…) Why is every paragraph a fight, every essay an internal scrap? Would I have a mastery of the metaphor had English been my mother tongue? Would I still need thesaurus.com and Google tabs at the ready to help me find the correct word to articulate a thought? Would I still consider my prose prosaic and flat, neither elegant nor sophisticated?

There is another consequence to abandoning a mother tongue. Yiyun Li recently wrote a moving personal history for the New Yorker titled “To Speak is to Blunder.” It’s beautiful and delicate, and you should read it. In it she describes what it was like to abandon Chinese and embrace English as  her “public and private language.” The following excerpt struck me: “Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. And memories—not only those about America but also those about China—are sorted in English.” Renouncing a language affects the way that you recall memories. What does that mean? When I recall a memory I build the scene in English. There was a chair and a table and he was there and she was sitting and they were talking and music was playing. Romanian memories should be remembered in Romanian but I build them in English, too. “When one remembers in an adopted language,” writes Li, “there is a dividing line in the remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.” What happened before, then, is mediated by this other language that is at once mine and not mine. I’ll let Li have the last words because they are perfect, and I wish I had written them: “One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.”

 

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