Yesterday was International Mother Language Day and in honor of that I would like to jot down a few words regarding my relationship with my native language, English.
English is my only mother tongue, despite how I desperately wish that I was bilingual from childhood. I always regret that my father’s side of the family did not retain Danish and that my mother’s side abandoned Italian. As it is, English remained my only language at home.
As someone who has devoted a significant portion of my professional and personal life to mastering other languages, English is not a language that I often take pride in. From my study in linguistics I long ago realized that English, as the global lingua franca, possesses a sociopolitical monopoly over other languages, a monopoly that I do not agree with and believe to be unjust.
While my decision to study the languages I do is partly rooted in personal taste, I must also concede that I can pick whatever language I want to study because I can already boast fluency in the most economically viable language. From my privileged position as a native English speaker, I never need to worry that I’m wasting my time with any other language.
That is not true for others. I remember announcing my decision to learn Turkish to my friends in Morocco. Much to my dismay, some were downright discouraging.
“Turkish?” they said. “Why on earth would you learn that? Take Spanish or Portuguese.”
At first I was insulted by their lack of support, but upon further reflection I could see how they were coming from a pragmatic, strategic standpoint. For Moroccans, Turkish holds no promise of socioeconomic mobility, therefore they considered the pursuit wasteful and foolish. Non-native speakers of English must choose their foreign languages wisely so they do not devote too much time and energy to a language that will not yield the career results they want.
From the realization of my linguistic privilege I have sought to deemphasize English. In a way I have internalized international students’ perception of English as unromantic and strictly communicative, enough so that I rarely write poems in English at this point. Poetry, as a art form celebrating the beauty and rhythm of language, has usually been a literary exercise for my foreign languages: French, Arabic, and Turkish.
But I do love to write, especially fiction. It is through the written form of prose that I can admire the English language as something beyond mere communication, a language that can be beautiful and artistic. When I’m describing a character’s emotions or painting the picture of a scene with words…that is when I truly connect emotionally with English.
Blogging has also increased my appreciation for English within the last year. From journalistic articles to more personal narratives, I’m using English more often to express my feelings to what in going on around me, both at the macro and micro levels.
I still have a long way to go in fully appreciating the mother language that has been given to me, but hopefully through blogging, creative writing, and more poetry in English, I can see my native tongue as one that has its own charm that shouldn’t necessarily be concealed in my personal life due to wider societal issues with intolerance of linguistic diversity.