top of page
  • eli

living with languages


“You’re never going to reach the same level of fluency that you have in your first language, you know…”


I was drinking coffee in the kitchenette and talking with a classmate. I was talking in my third language; she was talking in what I assume to be her second.




That's all I felt like replying.


Some people like to say these things -- they like to think that the power that the “mother tongue” has on their mind is absolute.


I honestly am not so convinced.


I can speak three languages, and I consider my abilities in all three of them to be imperfect. My first language, Italian, is mostly okay, but when I was writing papers for school they were full of red marks pointing out the anglicisms. They were a lot, and they came out in the most unexpected situations. Italian and English have a lot of similar words, and since I have been reading a lot in both languages since I was small, I get confused.


My second language, English, is also mostly ok, but I definitely have an Italian accent. What stands out are the Italianized (sometimes even Japanized) expressions. The imperfections in my second language are the ones that bother me the least, mainly because I've never even been to an English speaking country. Although I have friends who are native speakers, we're all living abroad, and they're open-minded enough not to care.


My third language, Japanese, is the weakest, but it would be a lie to say that I'm not fluent. It is also the most painful to speak, because it is perceived as a deeply national idiom. Many people, both in Japan and abroad, associate the Japanese language to Japan as a country, as well as to Japanese culture. And although this might happen pretty much everywhere, Japan has for a long time tried to maintain a myth of homogeneity, along with very strict immigration policies. Perhaps because of this, it then becomes very easy to think that only Japanese people (or those of Japanese descent) can be fluent. Me, a foreigner speaking this language at this high level is just weird.



Sometimes, if it's a very short interaction, people can't tell my nationality from my voice. But you can see the shock in their eyes when they see my face and realise that I’m not Japanese. I have very mixed feelings towards this kind of emotional responses. Part of me tries to justify them, and I tell myself that perhaps it can’t be helped since I’m part of a linguistic minority. But at the same time, it’s sad to see that many can’t even picture the possibility of a non-Japanese looking person speaking the language.


Anyways, my understanding of the three languages is not really separate. They're not isolated from each other in their own separate boxes, so to say. Nor is it heavily dependent on each other, like a chain reaction in which my understanding of the second language depends on the first and my understanding of the third depends on the second. Maybe it used to, but not anymore. Maybe at some point in my learning process, I was thinking back to the other languages I know, but I honestly don’t remember. My understanding and command of my second language are independent enough that I understand difficult concepts better in English rather than in the language I grew up in! But how do I even try to explain that Italian is not necessarily my strongest language when the attachment to the “mother tongue” idea is so strong?


I would like to think I have the same independence in my third language as well. I have not reached it quite yet, although I am working on it. But this time it is going to be significantly harder. As I said before, Japanese is protected by tall, tall barriers that are mostly social in nature. It is easy to lose the motivation to keep learning when you often hear things like the comment that my acquaintance said.


The potential consequences of these words are not limited to the destruction of my self-confidence. This kind of routine thinking also affects the society we live in, and I am especially sensitive to these effects because these ideas are particularly pervasive in Japan, where I am currently living. This ideology of the primacy of the mother tongue is so widespread that if you’re Japanese, speaking another language fluently is seen as if it is some sort of superpower. At the same time, if you’re a foreigner (and this is particularly true for White/Black foreigners) it is pretty much assumed that you are never going to be fluent.

こういう考え方は、言語を勉強している人の自信を失わせるだけではなく、社会にも影響を与えていると思います。私が経験した社会の中で日本は特に、日本語の影響力は圧倒的すぎて、違う言語が話せることだけでスーパーパワーを持っているかのように思われてるような気もする… 逆に、外国人の人はめったにしか流暢になれないと思う人はたくさんいるかもしれない。

Culture and language, however, get mixed up very easily. These imagined linguistic barriers often become cultural barriers, that in turn become barriers between people. It is assumed that people who are culturally distant to you are people who you can’t relate to, which makes it harder to spontaneously become friends with people who see you as culturally different.


At the same time, we live in a day and age in which even the most isolated societies are becoming more connected, and this means that more and more “foreigners” are coming in. There is an increased need for multicultural understanding, and yet how can we have an understanding of others that is not superficial if linguistic barriers are seen as so rigid?


To me, thinking of languages as separate entities inside your brain -- as if they were archived under different folders -- doesn’t really make sense. This might be because I could not imagine living a life that doesn’t require using all of them together. I mostly use Japanese when I'm at home, but there are times when me and my boyfriend speak English, too. Lately, I’ve been trying to teach him Italian as well. The same goes for school; I mostly speak to my professors in Japanese, but with my peers I speak both Japanese and English. I read theory in English, empirical research in Japanese. I write and present in all three. These languages aren’t accessories -- they are the very tissue of which my everyday life is made.


But perhaps because of this, I will never achieve mastery in any of them, mother tongue included. This is not necessarily something negative though! By learning and living with other languages, I’ve come to realize the high price that perfection has. One, it doesn’t leave you any time to move on to the next thing. Two, it might prompt you to protect those language barriers I mentioned before - you might become so dedicated to the “standard” that it makes it hard to accept any deviation from it. Three, it can make you judge more harshly those who don’t speak languages perfectly.


This is why, with time, I've come to appreciate language forms that are non-standard, like Spanglish, or dialects. Merging languages is a radical act, and a much needed one at that.


Have you ever felt in a similar way about languages? I’d be curious to know what you all think!


Main Image by Yumi

Images by Eli

Edited by Hikari and Kiara

bottom of page