The more languages you speak, the less connected to them you are…

I have no language to call my own: I had a bit of an epiphany last Friday, as I was speaking to a group of High School students. It has become one of the most frequently asked questions I answer here in Sweden, when it comes to my writing: “why do you write in English?” It’s a good question, because why would a Swede write in English? Makes no sense…

The more you know, the less you know. That realization is painful.

The more you learn, the less you know, even in a foreign language. That realization is painful.

I told them that I really didn’t have a good answer (I’ll attempt to answer it below), and said this: “English is my seventh, Swedish my ninth language. Does that give you a hint?” After the wows and a-ahs had passed, and I’d answered the mandatory follow-up question of “how many languages do you speak” (I have formally studied twelve different languages in my life), we moved on. On my way home I was reminded of a few reviews that never really lose their grip, with things like “awful language”, or “would never use that word”.

We are trying to raise our son to be trilingual. The sooner you learn a language, the better. As a linguist, that’s a given, and already, our son understands three languages, he is capable of reading, and he’s finally beginning to separate the languages from each other. I was raised in an environment where four languages were spoken regularly, and by the time I came into high school, English, my seventh language, was added to the curriculum. However, I wasn’t fluent on the other six, far from it.

And by the time I began my university studies and added another five to the plate, I had already forgotten most of my father’s tongue, language #2 (Raeto-romanic), my grip on language #4 (French) and #6 (Italian) was slipping. And I’d never really grasp #5 (Latin) because no one to talk to…

After moving to Sweden, I worked very hard to master its language, and today only very few can tell that it’s not my first language, but alas, I know it, and I also know that it’s not “my” language, never has, never will. Master it? I just never felt like it was mine to use, mine to express myself in. And after twenty-four years here, I feel like I’ve lost #1 (Alemannic), too, my own mother’s tongue, simply because I don’t use it regularly any more. I lost #3 (German) a long time ago, when the respective governments decided to dramatically change the way the language is written, because… Some followed the new guidelines, others didn’t, I was robbed of a language. So many rules had changed that I just felt discouraged to use it.

So here we are, and I’m trying to teach my son to speak my mother’s tongue, yet every day, I realize that I don’t know what to call this thing or that, simply because I had never learnt that expression or had forgotten. We read books about vehicles, and I can’t remember the Alemannic word for fork truck, no matter how hard I try, or what’s the English term for a timber truck?  I sit on the boat, kid in my lap, and we look at the pretty pictures and I try to answer the question “what’s this?” More often than not, I can’t remember.

I have no language, which makes writing a painful exercise, and I paint in broad strokes only.

I have no language to call my own, which makes writing a painful exercise, and I paint in broad strokes only.

Yes, some say I’m polyglot, multilingual even. I can probably order a coffee or a meal in  more languages than most people out there. But as handy as that is, I sometimes mourn those monoglot people who never even contemplate not knowing a word, or what this or that is called. If they lack a word, they automatically describe it. I usually know what it is called in this or that language, which makes it so obvious that I don’t know it. It’s painful. I read all those amazing books, and I’m amazed at how precise these authors express themselves, and then I look at my own texts, how flat they seem, how dull. While many authors paint with the most delicate of brushes, the ones at my disposal seem coarse and broad.

I could give you many examples, e.g. how I knew all the funeral terms in Swedish after having witnessed my first adult funeral (with all the arrangements and trimmings) in Sweden. I had no clue what you’d call all those words in Alemannic or any other of the languages prior to #9. I never learned all the “wedding” terms before last year, and again, it was #9. But, since I was now also writing in English and frequently talking to my dad, I was hard-pressed to learn #1 & #7 quickly. I’ll never dream of learning all those words in the other languages, too.

The author of this post was born to an Alemannic mother and a Rhaeto-romanic father. German was the first foreign language he learned in school, in fifth grade.

The author of this post was born to an Alemannic mother and a Raeto-romanic father. German was the first foreign language he learned in school, in fifth grade.

I’m not sure this makes any sense to anyone else, but I find it quite painful at times, particularly when you try to teach your son the language of your mother, and you realize you’ve lost that ability. I once chose English because it is the language that allows me the greatest flexibility to express myself in, with over a million words and rapidly growing, the language of Shakespeare is so vibrant, so very much alive. Yet even in English, most speakers live on their 2,500 daily word diet, and very few know more than 5,000 (after a good college education) and almost none use 10,000 or more. One of the advantages of being multi-lingual is that I also speak the languages that have influenced English, the Germanic ones (Alemannic, German), French and Latin. It made learning, studying languages easier, and as a linguist, I know just how these languages have influenced each other (today, the movement is the opposite, from English back to all others.)  Yet every day I struggle, is it ‘really’ English? Is it used in England? Or India? Or the U.S.? Is this slang or actual ‘proper’ written English? Now multiply that by Alemannic, German, Swedish etc. I sometimes wonder how I’m still capable of opening my mouth and speak in the first place…

No, I have no language to call my own. I haven’t had one for a long time. I am but a visitor, whatever language I speak, write.

I know I’m not alone. What are your experiences? How does it feel to speak more than one language? Do you feel you’re fully ‘fluent’, a native speaker in more than one language?

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Have a wonderful week.


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