on language

I never thought about language much until I was seven years old. After we left Romania (in the middle of the night, no less), I suddenly found myself going to school in Germany with cohorts and teachers whose words made no sense to me.

That was the beginning of second grade; a new school, a new language. All I remember about those first days is feeling terrified that the teacher would call on me, that I would stare back at the room blankly, and that all would peg me for stupid. Even at the young age of seven, I knew that being smart was worth something. Especially when having frizzy hair and buckteeth; something had to compensate.

It’s funny how we can use something so much and spend so little time considering it. Do you play with the words on your tongue before releasing them into the world? Do you practice the sound inside your head before making it out loud? Do you trace the outline of each letter on the back of the school bus seat?

I have little recollection of this day but the story goes that my father was taking me to a schoolmate’s house to play when I peed my pants just outside her front door. I guess I was just too nervous, too scared of what would happen when left alone with people whose words remained indiscernible to me.

This story has a happy ending. I learned to speak German faster than you could learn to ride a bike. At such a young age, language skills are quickly forged; sounds are tasted and spit back out with little trace of foreignness or accent.  By the time Christmas rolled around (a year after the revolution, half a year after our immigration), I was singing German carols with the best of them and asking for Plätzchen and heiße Schokolade like I’d been raised on them.

What’s more, language has sort of become my thing. I’ve amassed years and years of graduate school study on foreign language literature, I have made a living of teaching that very language that caused my seven-year-old self to empty her bladder on someone else’s doorstep, and I find nothing more exciting than arriving in a new country whose language is a mystery to me.

Funny how our childhood can shape us. The very thing that terrifies becomes the thing adored. Maybe that’s just another coping mechanism; staring fear in the face and offering it a friendship bracelet. And then playing hopscotch with fear often enough that the pretense is lost and something akin to real love is formed.

Today, I revel in my multilingual-ness. I am going back to my roots, to the language of my early childhood years, and passing it on to my daughter. I speak that language imperfectly, the way a seven year old speaks, with no further education in a tongue that was my very first. In that way, it has remained my mother tongue; it’s made of the bits and pieces that my mother (and father) have imparted on me. I speak it awkwardly and self-consciously but not without pride at having retained it while making friends with so many new words in the years to come.

I hope that when my daughter learns to talk, she will utter words in both her father and her mother’s language, honoring her heritage and the complicated path that led her parents to meet in a small Midwestern college town, miles and miles away from a failed revolution and assassinated dictators. I hope that she will come to know the value of words, the power they hold in dividing and scapegoating, but also in uniting and merging and making one what seems like impossibly disparate entities.


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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
This entry was posted in Bilingual Parenting, Family, Immigration Stories, Tales from a Childhood in Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to on language

  1. DAN says:

    I know kind of know what you are talking bout. Being a native american speaking diffident language than the on spoke at my grade school.

  2. T. says:

    My mother was born in Germany in 1936 and lived there until 1956. Frightening time and place to be a child, no? When she moved to the U.S. at the age of 20, she wanted to be completely American. Consequently, she did not raise her children to be bilingual. Such a missed opportunity for my sisters and me! Your daughter is very fortunate.

  3. CM says:

    I envy your language skills. I so wish I had started studying a foreign language from a very young age. I still try to learn bits and pieces here and there, but it’s very difficult for me. To be fluent in multiple languages is right at the top of my wish list!

  4. Dave says:

    I simply love language. It really resonates with something in me deeply, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it – both from the technical standpoint of just forming sounds and how to express meaning in different ways to how language effects our perception of the world, how we view language and what effect that has on our interaction with media and government and each other, and how our view of language has changed over time. Even down to how language may effect our physiology – does pronouncing different sounds (by forming lips differently, using different jaw and tongue movements) contribute to different facial features? I think about how useless language can be to actually communicate sometimes, and also how sometimes it communicates the best when it is most abstract.

    I wish so much that my grandparents would have passed on their languages (German and Hungarian), but they felt embarrassed to be immigrants in Canada and the U.S., so they only wanted their kids to speak English – or in the case of the German side, I think they liked having a language they could speak without their kids understanding, to some extent. I have studied both languages, but Hungarian was a bit much for me at the time. After learning Lithuanian though, which shares some grammatical similarities (notably noun declensions), I would love to study it some more, as I think it would make more sense to me, as parts of the German I learned do now (wie geht es dir?) :)

    One of the reasons I find George Orwell so fascinating is his focus on language – have you ever read his essay on Politics and the English Language? His discourse on Newspeak that is used in 1984 and the principles behind it are quite interesting as well. Good stuff for people to be aware of in this mass media barrage world we’re in nowadays. It’s too easy to just let everything slide in unattended when there’s so much of it.

    In any case, I think it’s wonderful to focus on language with your children, it will give them an up in the world, for sure. Not only to be able to communicate with more people, but the advantage of being more likely to think about what they’re saying and hearing, and to think of it differently, creatively, thoughtfully, from different perspectives. I think it will also help them see the world less as “me (or us) vs. them”.

    Thanks for a wonderful post, and best of luck finishing up the dissertation! What a piece of work!

  5. This was a beautiful post. I have an eight-week-old daughter and language is always on my mind. My native language is Spanish and my husband is Greek. We’re trying and planning to raise our daughter trilingual and it’s fascinating for me to see when English or when Spanish pop out of my mouth naturally while speaking to my baby. I love language and studying them and figuring them out and I hope that this will reflect in my daughter’s upbringing and how she herself learns in the future. Congratulations on hitting the end with the dissertation! Good luck!

  6. Julie says:

    I have really enjoyed these personal posts from you. That’s such a harrowing story about you guys fleeing. I’m so glad you are you! I had no idea you had such a past :)

  7. Dominique says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us! I was wondering after the last post whether your parents already spoke german, or you had to all learn together.
    Being from Canada I’m not sure which countries learn what languages in school…My Romanian friend speaks Romanian and French (and English now).My friends from Belgium speak Dutch, English, and German…but they rarely speak French (they are in the Flemish side..).
    Currently I am a Frenchie and speak English, but I’m working on German. My sister is working on Dutch…They are very similar!

    Toodles :)

  8. Kathrin says:

    Great post. :)

    My guess would be that language is so natural to most of us that we don’t really understand its value unless we’re in an environment where people no longer understand what we are trying to say.

    I moved from Germany to Canada last year, and although I knew quite a bit of English before I came here, I still experience these frustrating little moments in which I fail to explain myself or cannot find the right words, and people give me blank stares thinking that I have lost my mind. :)

    And just another thought — in your first language, it’s usually so easy to express yourself well, play with words and just admire the beauty of words — I really miss that, and I guess it’ll take a long time until you’re as comfortable with a second language…

  9. L says:

    I fully, truly understand exactly what you mean.

    I moved to England when I was 16. It was no way near as dramatic/drastic as your move, but somehow it still felt quite traumatic, on a personal level. The initial sense of fear and sickness in the morning as I prepared going to school (college for me) without really knowing the language. I had to learn so fast, in less than 6 months I was taking exams that my fellow english friends had all their life to gradually prepare for. But I did it, and now 14 years I am an accomplished person and not only I love my bilingual skills and my bi-culture but it has made me in who I am. I do feel elements of english life and culture are rooted in me as much as my italian heritage.

    I look forward so much, one day, to when I will be able to pass all this linguistic knowledge to a child of mine, hopefully without the trauma to be uprooted from your mother country.

    But on a personal level I find it really hard to really talk about my experience, as much as I now feel proud to have been brought up in two different countries, in two different cultures, but I guess there are some things that I have not absorbed just yet.

    I really enjoy reading your posts. Thank you.

  10. Miss Sarah says:

    Recently I have been feeling self-conscious about speaking so much Chinese to Dexter! People look at us all the time, and it feels a bit anti-social. I always translate what I’m saying to those around me, then I sort of hate myself for it.

    The other funny thing is people always express disappointment hat he is learning Cantonese and not mandarin (such a hot language right now). They don’t realize my parents are from Hong Kong, and southern Chinese speak… Cantonese!

    In any case, I am proud to be first gen and speaking my parents’ language fluently, and wih a decent accent. Dexter just mastered “zipper” the other day. Now he runs around remixing his hoodie’s zipper while saying it over and over again.

  11. Pingback: Simply Bike » on language II

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