December 26, 2017


ARE WE DIFFERENT PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES?  (Ana Menéndez, November 19, 2015, Literary Hub)

The Latvian student was struggling with his assignment. I had asked all the students in my writing class at Maastricht University in the Netherlands--where instruction was in English--to translate one of their stories into their native language.

The Latvian student, B., was one of 23 who had signed up for the first year of creative writing minor I had designed for the university. This inaugural class comprised one of the most linguistically diverse groups I had ever taught. Only one--my single American--was monolingual. The rest spoke 12 different languages among them. For most of my students, English was their second or third language and yet they used it beautifully, writing stories and poems that were among the most interesting I had come across as a teacher of writing.

So I was surprised to discover that this last assignment requiring them to write in the language they had first spoken was especially difficult. Like B., many students found it nearly impossible to complete.

B. had been born in Latvia and had moved to the Netherlands with his family around the age of 10. He had already written an accomplished, rather adult story, a gothic tale involving a bit of violence and a bit of love. The translation assignment nearly did him in. He was in my office every week, unable to start the project, and then when he did, unable to make any progress. Finally, I asked him to try to pinpoint what was the root of his problem. He thought for a moment and then lit up.

"The problem," he explained, "is that this is a very dark story and Latvian is just not that kind of language."

I asked him what he meant.

"You see," he replied. "Latvian is a very sweet and beautiful language."

A sweet and beautiful language. I smiled. And then gently broke it to him that it's not the language that was sweet and beautiful; it was the 10-year-old boy who stopped using it exclusively when he acquired a new one. He was able to finish his translation after that. But I don't know if he ever quite believed me. Latvian will always remain for him the sweet and innocent language of childhood. As it probably must.

At its most basic level, we have language in order to communicate. One can easily imagine that the first human articulation was some version of "Watch out!"

But the struggles of my Latvian student show that language also communicates our deepest selves back to us, as if words were a shroud that give form to our inner world. Language is power and protest, inclusion and exclusion. It is game and braggadocio.

We can't adopt English universally fast enough.

Posted by at December 26, 2017 5:13 PM