Are You Another Person When You Speak Another Language?

Dear Graduating Class, Dear Parents, Relatives, and Friends:

On this day of celebration, many of you will be celebrating and talking about this graduation in many different languages. You will be dreaming of it in Spanish, raving about it in Korean, and in the years to come, who knows? You might remember it in German, or tell your children about it in Chinese. Along the way someone is sure to ask you, “Tell me: Are you another person when you speak another language?”

Three weeks into my freshmen seminar on Language & Identity this semester, I asked students to write a short essay on exactly that question. Here for example was Judith, born in the Netherlands, moved to the U.S. at age seven, schooled entirely in the U.S. She knows French, Spanish, Dutch, and English. Here is what she wrote:

Finally, I have one of my own. I found a language of my own in Paris… I’d first accessed it without understanding in a classroom. There it had belonged to no one, a lost language ill at home in the stuffy California air. But here, French was wedged comfortably between the cobblestones and my flowered dress. It was mine. Perhaps I absorbed it as I sipped at my limonade or as I dipped my feet into the fountain at the Louvre. Regardless of place or time, I have since grasped at it with a fierce jealousy. Not angry, but possessive. French is so me that my entire body becomes inhabited by the words. I can be crazy, wild, and reckless because no one will understand. For me, French is free.
Spanish too is free but in an entirely different sense. It has a freedom just out of bounds… like trying to harvest the fruits at the top of a guava tree. For me, Spanish was born spontaneously, not from a book but from Costa Rica. [It] expressed the earth. It is gurgled and whispered. But it was always just out of reach, spoken quickly and muttered like the wind (…).
That is not to say that my first language bores me, because Dutch does not. But, Dutch is the past. Dutch is the language of my parents, of my whole family…  In Dutch, I’m an expat. In Dutch I crave nothing. I need nothing… I can never become something new with Dutch, but it is not a constraint. There is comfort in stillness and stability.
Still it is in English that I write this, because it is in English that I find my outward voice. English examines, criticizes, analyzes, controls, but it does not seep into my body. It remains on the outskirts. English is responsible for the old bump on the third finger of my right hand… English has since threatened to colonize Dutch, to edge out French, to overcome hints of Spanish. But I have welcomed it as a necessary invader. To the world, English gives me legitimacy. A well argued sentence of English removes the stigma of immigrant, of feminist, of raging liberal. Mostly it clears the shame of a scared Dutch child thrust into America. It is my business suit, my outer face.

53% of undergraduates at this university have a mother tongue other than English. Chinese and Spanish are the most common other tongues, but there are at least 40 others. 92% of our undergraduates have either studied three years of a foreign language in high school or they come from bilingual homes. The remaining 8% take a required foreign language course to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Roughly 15% of students go abroad via an official Education Abroad Program for at least one semester. 51 languages are taught on the Berkeley campus. Last month, Vice Chancellor Breslauer and Dean Janet Broughton announced that foreign languages were part of the essential common core curriculum, together with basic math and writing, and were therefore granted additional funding. Next year’s freshmen will celebrate Berkeley’s linguistic diversity through the On the Same Page program dedicated to multilingualism.

The question “Are you another person when you speak another language?” has been answered in various ways by neurophysiologists, psycho- and sociolinguists and by cognitive scientists. They show how cognition and emotion go hand in hand, how the acquisition of a second language can give you a different sense of self, how bilinguals have different bodily rhythms, coordinate words and gestures differently, think different thoughts in one or the other of their languages. Today I want us to listen to what my freshmen wrote about their experiences with other languages. I share with you what they wrote, with their permission.

An embodied experience

The first thing I noticed upon reading their essays was the embodied relation that many of them have to the foreign language. Jason, who grew up with Spanish-speaking nannies, has studied Spanish for four years and went to Spain last summer, writes, “The way that a language manages to imprint itself upon the mind is a difficult, almost impossible thing to describe. It is perhaps better described by the way in which life seems to change [through it] or lose some of its luster without it. [When I speak Spanish] I won’t say I feel more creative, but I do feel more alive than normally. Becoming bilingual is about awareness, awareness of who you are, the worlds you move in, and the worlds that move in you.

For another student, “Spanish is fleeting. Sometimes it’s very alive and it bites, like salsa. Sometimes it slips away gracefully like salsa — the rhythm, not the sauce. I don’t want to speak Spanish so that I can write reports of diplomacy or law. I want to speak Spanish so I can find connection in a different color. Making different noises, feeling different things. A Spanish earthquake that rocks me, just menacingly enough to be fun, into life. No hablo el idioma, hablo el lenguaje.”

And Judith dreams in tongues. She writes, “Despite the outward Anglicism, I dream in tongues. I dream of drunken twilights and of overripe guavas and crinkled recipes and stacked notebooks.” French is associated with twilights along the Seine, Spanish with the overripe guavas and the green mountains of Costa Rica. Dutch for her is embodied in the crinkled family recipes of her family home in Amsterdam; English is weighted down by stacks of school notebooks in California. Language is definitely something her body sees, tastes, hears, and touches.

The language of a loved one

Often it is the contact with a loved one that imbues the language with a special emotional resonance. Katie writes, “When I returned from my year in Italy and decided to study German, it was not because I wanted to expand beyond Romance languages or speak with Dave’s cousins in Berlin. It was because when I visited Dave the year before, just before Christmas in Freiburg, we had gotten a little drunk on Glühwein at the Weihnachtsmarkt and wandered hand in hand through the snow stopping in doorways to sneak a kiss. When I got back to the U.S., he was in New York and I was in North Carolina, and taking German was a way of being closer to him. Our teacher taught as if we would all be headed to Germany the next spring to study abroad. But I did not want to learn how to ask directions to the train station, I wanted to learn words for church bells and cobblestones and snowflakes and quiet and soft light through tree branches. There was nothing functional about THAT.”

For Allyson, who is learning Italian, the language of her ancestors, Italian offers access to her grandmother’s homemade cookies. “Italian is the expression of my grandparents, mouthfuls of sound, secret recipes of meaning.

Elizabeth recalls an Argentinean classmate — “Arianna with her long braids and her foreign words and a way of speaking that I could never hope to understand. [Yet] even when her mother started getting angry and speaking rapidly and the tears would well up in Arianna’s eyes, it always seemed so much more glamorous than when my own mother yelled at me. I wanted to be yelled at in Spanish too!

For others, bilingualism in the family can create or mend a rift between mother and child, as eloquently expressed by Melvin, a Filipino-American freshman, who describes how he feels caught between his mother’s Tagalog, which he does not understand, and her English, which feels inauthentic, especially when she utters in English the words “I love you” before putting down the telephone. He writes, “I am sure my mom loves me at times, but it intrigues me to think that the mom who speaks to me in English may not be the same mom who speaks Tagalog to my older sibling or my father. Do I really know my mom?” Marie, whose parents also come from the Philippines, decided to learn Tagalog. She wrote her essay in the form of a letter to her mom, “You once told me before I left home that ‘no matter what, I know you will do great things.’ I carry that with me and I think that the final great thing I will do for you before I leave — before you ever leave — is learn your mother tongue and let it flow into me like a river, like a sea, like the ocean of your heart and let it connect me back to the homeland. Mahal kita, Nanay.”

A bilingual puzzle

For these language learners, it seems that learning another language reveals them to themselves in unexpected ways. Unknown emotions, existential questions, pieces of an unfinished puzzle that were not captured by their native tongue. Elizabeth describes it well, “Bilingualism is not a doctrine or solution; it is a mode of survival. If a feeling or thought cannot be communicated, and the owner of this language feels abandoned by her native language, what is she to do? Why, turn to another language, of course! It is in this moment of despair, of thoughts of eternal miscommunication that bilingualism becomes the savior. Learning another language isn’t about political advantage or expanding the brain capacity of infants: it’s about providing the possibility for true understanding and communication when the vocabulary of one language has been pushed to its extreme [and found deficient].”

Ultimately Mariah sees herself as a puzzle that she can complete only with the help of others. She writes, “When you can attach real, personal meaning to words from multiple languages, you can start to recognize all the different parts of yourself. I imagine it’s a little like listening to different genres of music depending on your mood …except that with languages, you’re reaching deep down into your very self, who you ARE.”

Living at the intersection

Ultimately these speakers of other languages live at the intersection of all of them. Ayden ends his essay with a German sentence of his invention: “Es gibt keinen Platz außer Sprachen, aber es gibt ja einen Platz zwischen den Sprachen” [There is no place outside language, but there is a place between languages]. Judith herself feels most comfortable at the intersection of her four languages. She tells me, “In truth, I live at the intersection. English is important. I need it. Like, it’s (1.5), kind of like you need broccoli. I need to eat broccoli, it’s a vegetable, it’s good for me. But (2) I don’t always want it, you know (2) Yeah, I mean i—it’ (1) it’s enough (1) if I can argue something well in English, if I can write something well in English, I mean, that’s what I was known for in [my high school]… I just don’t want to allow [English] to (1) invade me too much. I feel like I need to keep English at a distance…in order to allow myself to…stay a Dutch person in America, as opposed to (1) an American person who occasionally visits the Netherlands and was born there. I don’t want to be an American born in the Netherlands. I want to be a Dutch girl in America.”

Listening to Judith and others talk about their experience reminds me that multilingual speakers live on multiple timescales of experience, they have a different emotional relation to each of their languages. These languages are not interchangeable. Each one enriches their understanding of themselves and the world they live in, in complex and sophisticated ways. They are admired and envied by their peers for their multilingual abilities.

You too will be admired and envied. Some of you will be called ‘elitist’, because you are multilingual and you understand things differently from people who only know one language. It is true that with a degree from Berkeley you will be part of the elite. But that doesn’t mean to say that you are elitist. Knowing different languages will give you access to those who don’t have the privilege of knowing English and who are waiting for you to reach out to them — in their language. You will be able to benefit from their wisdom —unsayable, unthinkable even, in English. In turn you will be able to transform English and the truths and untruths associated with the English language. As multilinguals, you will have both privileges and responsibilities. After all, as they say in my language, noblesse oblige.

Together with the freshmen of German 24, I extend to you my most heartfelt congratulations, mes félicitations les plus sincères und meine herzlichsten Glückwünsche.

19 May, 2011
UC Berkeley