I am what is commonly referred to as an expat. I.e. a resident in a foreign country. Another word for this is immigrant. And I’ve written about this before (here), so I won’t go too deep into the absurdities that reside within that concept in this text, but let me just say that people aren’t plants. We don’t have roots, we have legs. We move. But when you do move there are a number of things you are confronted with, and one of these things is language.
I live in a country where I have to live my daily life in a different language, a language that isn’t my mother tongue, German. I already knew a bit of German when I moved here 5 years ago, so I wasn’t that worried. I knew it would take a while to get a flow, to feel secure and at home in the new language, but I wasn’t really prepared for what an impact it would have on my identity and self-image. Because every language has its characteristics and in these characteristics also lies a world view. The words you have in a language say a lot about how you perceive the world, what concepts are relevant. And as you slowly start conquering the language you also get an insight to the world view that comes with it, and you start relating this to your own. You start reflecting on the differences and compare them to other languages, other world views. I use three languages in my daily life, or to put it differently, I live my life in three different languages. I have a few more at my disposal, but three is what I use in my everyday existence. So essentially I have these three different world views coexisting in my head on a daily basis.
Having several world views at your disposal does good things to your head. It makes you see things from several angles, makes you able to notice a greater array of phenomena. Essentially it expands your understanding of the world, let’s you experience it in more ways. I once heard it stated that you can’t really understand a culture if you don’t understand its language and I think there lies a lot of truth in that statement. I was talking to an american friend of mine about this, and she pointed out the fact that there’s actually no word for rude in German. And there’s no word for taking pleasure in other people’s misery in English, there is in German, it’s called Schadenfreude. There’s also no word for the opposite of home sick in English*, in German you call this Fernweh. A painful longing for the far away. And they say German isn’t a poetic language?! I beg to differ. There’s poetry to be found in the precise too. Of course the French expression for nightfall, tombée de la nuit, the fall of the night, is extremely poetically charged, but in a different way. How a language works says a lot about how the people work. Or maybe the language is what’s responsible for the wiring in the first place? The hen and the egg, language and culture. What’s the cause and what’s the effect? Most likely both, an infinite interdependency. Because culture and language are both constantly evolving phenomena, one might even claim it’s part of their very essence, and as such they are in a constant dialogue with one another. A dialogue where there is no way of determining who or what is setting the agenda.
But like I said, it’s not only the culture, the world view, that you have to deal with, a new language also impacts your self-image. Initially through the fact that the language tools at your disposal are not only different, but also fewer. Or to put it differently, it’s not all that easy to be yourself in a new language, a language you’re not used to speaking. Being eloquent is pretty much impossible if your knowledge is limited, and therefore any elaborate jokes or puns are out of the question. Same with witty ripostes. It’s all off the agenda. You have to spend more time listening than talking and if you do want to say something, the words in which to do it may not even be at your disposal, you have to get creative and you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. In some ways it’s a bit like being a child again, you have to re-assume the same attitude of curiosity and willingness to learn as you have when you first learn how to talk. Some people you encounter, maybe even most, will interpret this stance and the lack of vocabulary as an indication of your intelligence, i.e. they will believe that you’re not very smart. And I suppose that’s part of the reason why there are so many highly educated immigrants that drive taxis rather than design them and who clean hospitals rather than work in the operating theatre. The lack of language proficiency is seen as a lack of intellectual capacities. A great example of a false conclusion.
But once you actually do get your head around the new language, you also realize that language really does make a difference to your personality, i.e there’s a slight difference between who you are depending on what language you’re using. The palette at your disposal makes a difference for the picture you paint. I am not entirely the same in English and German, I can’t really pinpoint exactly wherein these differences lie, but I know that they are there. And I do notice this with my bilingual friends too. To the extent that I can claim I prefer them in certain language. It’s not that I like them less or more, it’s that my perception of the various aspects of their personality shifts with the language they are using, and in this specter I do have my preferences. And the same is true for myself. I have preferences there too, but when it comes to yourself it’s very hard to tell if these preferences has more to do with your level of comfort or the different aspect of your personality that surface. But it’s the latter reason that’s the really interesting part, because just like a language will give you insight to a world view, the language will also highlight different aspects in you, in your own self-image. You see yourself in a different perspective, through the lens of a different language. Can I even translate the person that I am, that I have become in one language, into a different language? In philosophy it’s common practice to not translate certain concepts as a way to ensure they remain true to their definitions, because translating ideas without altering them is close to impossible. And I suspect the same is true for personalities. There is an element of change in the translation of yourself. A transformation that takes place and that influences who you actually are. Initially this isn’t an altogether pleasant experience because you do notice it and there is a certain sense of confusion and insecurity involved, but once you manage to transcend this, partly through an increased proficiency in the language and partly through the understanding of the world view, you can begin to embrace the expansion of your own personality, your own self, that this translation process brings with it. And that’s when it really gets interesting.
I firmly believe the reason we, as humans, don’t have roots is to allow us to move, to expand our horizons. And language allows us to do this on a consciousness level. Learning a new language is like traveling. It offers us new perspectives on the world and thus also on ourselves. Not only does it expand and increase our understanding of our surroundings, it also gives us the opportunity to evolve our own personalities, to become more multifaceted. In short, it’s all very good for our mind, it expands it. And mind expansion is all about liberating your mind from the clutter of prejudice and false assumptions, about ourselves and the world, i.e. something we should all devote ourselves to a lot more. Language is one way to do this.
* The closest you get is ‘wanderlust’, which is also a German word, or ‘itchy feet’ which is not only a bit silly, but also fails to capture the right nuance of the concept.