In college, I spent a summer studying in Germany. It was a language school setup, filled with foreigners, but in such a small town that everyone knew that we were studying German, and so everyone always spoke to us all in German. I had already studied abroad a few times before this adventure, and I had learned firsthand about what works and what doesn’t work, in terms of language immersion. I was dedicated to learning German, and so I made sure that I only spoke in German with others, even if they spoke to me in English. This made friendships hard among the people in my program’s group, since they all used English together; I came across a bit snobby, but I was just really committed to learning German.
I made friends with other foreigners rather easily, though, and especially ones in higher levels of German, which was even better for me. My German was improving immensely. But this led to a unique situation one day.
One day, near the end of either my time at the school or my friend Paul’s time there (he’s British), I found myself faced with a desperate Paul, actually begging me to speak English. Why?! was my repeated question to his pleas.
“Because I want to hear what you sound like!”
I don’t know if he was pleased or not by how I sound in English, but I spoke a little for him. And it was way weird, using English with him, despite the fact that I’d heard him speak English loads, and that it’s our common native language. I had just never used it with him.
And then this brought up a unique and interesting sentiment. He wanted to hear me, and that meant speaking English. I can guess that my native tongue was the one in which Paul believed my identity to lie. I know that it felt like I was setting aside a sort of mask when I switched to English with him. I even felt a little called-out… as though I had been hiding somehow, and it had been behind German. The real me (I) lay in English, in the English part of me.
Yet, years later, here I am, missing the parts of me that belong to these different languages in which I have lived. A part of me, true me (I), exists only on German, and others in French, in Spanish, and in Japanese. So much so that the real me (I) is this whole combination of languages – I feel a huge emptiness and feel not myself when I am using only English in my daily life. I listen to Spanish-speaking radio when I’m in Houston, mostly because I don’t get to use Spanish often enough. I read every night in French, and trade off an English book for a German one at times for my evening reading, too. I regularly pull out a Spanish book to read, or my German audiobooks. And I have noticed that I have been searching for a tolerably satisfying way to have Japanese in my near-daily life, too. (For now, it has just been the occasional music, and a perpetual repeat of a certain song being stuck in my head.) When I don’t have them all, it is as though a part of me is missing, and suddenly getting to speak with someone in them, almost reminds me of that mask I was setting aside in Germany with Paul… like I am again setting aside some mask I have been wearing.
Perhaps it is now a mask of monolingualism, pretending that I only speak English, while I long for the world to talk to me in several languages, all the time.
Anyway… I’m exhausted. And I miss Paul. He was studying opera, and was a really great guy. I wonder if he’s been really successful with opera these past several years. Maybe I can go see him perform one day. That would be awesome. 🙂