Foreign tongues


I was browsing online the other day, when I came across these words:

En el idioma extranjero, las palabras no tienen infancia.

They were attributed to somebody I’d never heard of before, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar, and for a while, for some oblique reason, her words danced about inside me. The original language in which they were written, I believe, was German, although their author is originally from Turkey having moved to Berlin when she was a young adult. I realised quite quickly that I had to have this short resonant sentence clear inside me, in my mother tongue English,

In foreign languages, words are without a childhood.

I knew, or at least I intuited, these words were saying something important to me about how it feels to speak in Spanish, a language I did not speak, neither as a child nor as an adolescent and have entirely acquired as an adult. The image I often use to describe my struggle with the experience of living outside of the safe realms of my native English, is that for me communicating in Spanish feels like skating on thin ice, that is to say, it often feels precarious and lacking in the sufficient depth and accumulated layers of meaning required for secure forward motion. Speaking “words without a childhood” somehow felt closer to more adequately describing what is going on for me. In this sense, my Spanish did not have a childhood and had to be adult way too soon and get down to work probably before it was ready. As a consequence, there are two very different things that I regularly have to confront: I often experience a kind of meaning gap, as I speak and listen in Spanish, like there’s something I’m just not getting. It’s as if a screen appears in front of me and filters away the meanings being conveyed in my direction. At the other extreme, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by a kind of meaning overload, in that there’s something I feel myself to be communicating excessively and unintentionally, almost certainly due to my limited connotational capacities. Of course, these phenomena can occur in my native tongue too, but are somehow much less frequent and less pronounced.

Talking of tongues, Ozdamar, while writing about how she adapted to her new language, German, quotes a Turkish proverb,

the tongue has no bones

and is more agile and less rigid than the rest of our bodies while taking on the new, such that perhaps what one loves about learning a foreign language is precisely the journey, in which you make a lot of mistakes on the way, but you

turn the words left and right, you work with it, you discover it.

If only this boneless agility were true of my tongue, which, I must confess, is that part of my body I all too often experience as doggedly rigidly hopelessly English.