This I Believe
I believe in foreign languages. I believe that in learning to speak languages other than our mother tongues, we find our better selves in the words and worlds of others.
I know this because I was raised with only one language — English. As a child, I developed a strange, inchoate envy of kids who spoke other languages at home. I envied Carmina — who could speak Spanish with her parents, and Kareen — who spoke Creole at home. I envied Mischa, who knew French and German, and I envied my friends who trudged off every week to Hebrew school. I coveted those alien languages, their mysterious sounds and enigmatic words, and the difference that they presented to the world that I knew. Other languages promised not just other worlds beyond my home in suburban New Jersey, but a way of being someone other than who I was. I desperately wanted to be foreign, and to do this, I would have to learn as many languages as possible.
This wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it would be.
My only real gift in learning languages is a good ear. Everything else is a struggle. I’ve never really mastered the many moods of French verbs. German sentence structure exasperating continues to be. And Latin was a dolorous exercise in futility. To learn the languages that I work with every day, Russian and Yiddish, it took a tremendous effort to assimilate the dative case, the genitive of absence, the langer tsadik, and unstressed verbal prefixes. Gradually, it all sank in, and today I even teach these languages to other people.
There are many pleasures in knowing another language — the warmth of a stranger’s face when you answer in her mother tongue, books as their authors wrote them, songs and films without liner notes and subtitles. But there’s also the joy of thinking and being in another language. That moment when you forget which language you’re speaking or hearing, because the native tongue and the adopted one have ceased to be marked as such in your mind. Their merging signals the end of translation, and the beginning of creation — both of perception and expression that do not exist in your native tongue, and of one’s own self. For by learning to speak with another’s voice, you have fundamentally changed your own.
In your adopted tongue, you tend to listen more, and talk less. You think about the way the language works, admire its elegance and economy. And you marvel at how a five-year old native speaker fearlessly employs the daunting instrumental plural.
Because in truth you too have become a child again in your adopted language. You and your second language grow together, through youthful exploration and awkward adolescence, into the heady freedom of adulthood. I believe that you are reborn in another tongue — in a language that was not given to you, but chosen, and earned.
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