languages and the way we see the world

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  • , Non-Fiction

The concepts of language and personal identity have been playing on my mind lately. The way the characteristics and quirks of our native languages and others we speak shape the way we see the world and appear to those around us. As is often the case when something’s playing on your mind, articles on that very subject seem to appear more frequently — including this one, in which the author describes how he forged a new sense of self through language after moving to Spain:

”Searching the dusty corners of my memory for the Spanish I could remember, I returned with two common and fairly useful verbs. ‘Tengo que’ (I have to) and ‘puedo’ (I can). It was to be these two pillars of dialogue that I would base my speech upon […] What followed was almost an art form in the construction of sentences that somehow included them. […] Forming was a figure seemingly low on self-confidence, frequently needing external reassurance that his actions were acceptable. The sympathetic expression I received was befitting toward a man enduring a personal crisis. On the other hand, if I was talking about a future action, it would always be an action I  had to do. […] I saw in their faces thinly veiled concern. Who was making this poor English man do all these things? Couldn’t he just choose his actions without an ambiguous threat hanging above him in this oppressive timetable of compulsion?  I glimpsed my own reflection and felt sad at the sight of a crumbling character who now occupied two differing identities dependent on which verb felt appropriate. Neither character particularly appealed to me.”

I empathise with this predicament, for at the moment the character I project in this new-to-me land is one of hesitancy and timidness. Each day, I grasp more of the conversations around me, but my ability to express myself lags much further behind than when I’ve learned new languages in the past. This is because of Brazilian Portuguese’s similarity to Spanish. When I started to learn new languages in the past (German or Russian, for example) I didn’t already have a language that could help to the same degree.  In a way, this is frustrating. When someone is taking to me, my facial expressions indicate understanding, but when the time comes for me to speak the sentences that emerge are still so basic, either that or portenol. I then want to convince that person that I’m not as unintelligent, docile (or even rude) as I might seem. But I know that with time, and hard work, this frustrating element will become an advantage. Over the last weeks I’ve been soaking up the words and intonations I hear around me, but now I need to speak more, make mistakes, improve, immerse myself. That will start to happen in a few days’ time when I start an intensive Portuguese course.

Herta Müller’s 2012 speech ‘The Space between Languages’, published this week in Asymptote, gives an account of her experiences learning Romanian at the age of 15 after growing up in a minority German community:

”Having grown up in a village speaking a dialect and learning standard German at high school, I found it difficult to find my bearings in the official Romanian spoken in the capital. For the first two years in the city it was easier for me to locate the right street in an unfamiliar part of town than the right word in the national language. Romanian was like pocket money. No sooner would I be tempted by something in a shop window than I would discover I was short of the money needed to buy it. […] Today, however, I know that this kind of inching along in another language, the hesitancy that forced me below my intellectual level, also gave me time to marvel at how objects were transformed by the Romanian language. I know that I am fortunate to have experienced this.”

Meditating on the act of translation, she goes on to say: ”Each language sees the world differently, inventing its entire vocabulary from its own perspective and weaving it into the web of its grammar in its own way. Each language has different eyes sitting inside its words.”

I love the way she expresses this. And the idea that each language sees the world differently also extends to languages shaping the way its speakers see the world.  The future version of me (who will hopefully be fluent in Portuguese) will not be the same as my native English self, nor the same as the version of me who has found a second home in the German language for the last twenty years. And it may be similar to my still adolescent Argentine Spanish persona, but it won’t be the same. Because I believe (as do many others) that our personas can differ within the various languages we speak, influenced by the characteristics of the language and culture in question.

While some of theories often expressed on this topic may be stereotyped and exaggerated, there is some truth in it. When speaking in German, I find that I’m more direct than in English, enjoying the sense of liberation from British etiquette that the structure permits me. During my months in Argentina, I found that my stories and sentences were more elaborate and meandering, more prone to introspection and passionate interjections. Here in Brazil, I’ve already noticed a few traits creeping into my outlook whichI believe are part of my new surroundings — there’s a pervading sense that tudo fica bem, and the cadence of Brazilian sentences, shifting from langurous to lively, is starting to soften me, their emotional intensity prising my mind open in new ways, shifting my focus to living in the moment.

With just a week to go until theory turns to practice, I feel curious to discover how the Brazilian Portuguese version of me will develop and what its quirks will be. And hopefully I will later be able to say the same as Herta Müller does of her Romanian: ”It has grown into my way of seeing the world.”