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The language of foreignness

Last week I read an article on how our personality changes when we speak different languages and it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago. A good friend and I were talking
about our “mobile” life and the challenges of adjusting to different environments every time we moved. I asked her how she felt about having to function in a language other than her native one – she is a Spanish speaker in a German-speaking country. “I get by fine,” she said, being quite fluent in German, “but I am only an adapted version of myself in that language.” Somehow, switching to German managed to turn this lively, assertive, energetic Mediterranean woman into a much tamer, quieter, shy person. I thought of my own French or German persona and how different it was from the Greek one.

The image we project in different languages differs – especially when our level of proficiency differs among those languages. It is not unusual to be more reserved than our usual self when we don’t feel confident enough to express ourselves in a foreign language. My husband often says that his IQ drops by at least 30 points when he speaks French. I feel intellectually challenged when I try to function in a language that I don’t master. While I struggle to make a point and get frustrated when I can’t, someone who does not know me may assume that I don’t actually have a point to make.
The opposite can also happen, though more rarely: we may feel more confident in a language that’s not our own. Another friend of mine discovered that there was a language that fit better with her personality than her native one. Although she came from North America and grew up speaking English and French, after learning Spanish as an adult, she realised that she felt more herself, more genuine in that language than in the ones with which she was raised. So she gravitated towards everything Spanish – both in her professional and personal life – because in that context she felt more connected and more genuine.
When we move around a lot – unless we are perfectly versed in all the languages of the places we move to (which most of us are not) – language is a big part of the foreigner experience. While it might be fun to slip into different characters and switch between personalities depending on the language we speak, it also makes it harder for us to be our true selves all the time. Doesn’t this inability to feel authentic and genuine, make us feel even more foreign? Doesn’t it make adjustment more complicated and challenging? How do we deal with that?
I used to disapprove of people who moved away from their home country only to end up socialising with the same kids of people – from back home or from similar cultures. Greeks seeking out other Greeks; Francophones or Anglo-Saxons clustering together. Typical expats, in my condescending opinion, wasting a unique opportunity to enlarge their horizons and enrich their lives; stagnating rather than moving forward. Then I moved to countries whose language I did not master and, over time, I understood. When you are assembling and disassembling (and reassembling) your life multiple times over, in the process of reinventing yourself, you sometimes lose track of who you are – at the core. So there are moments when you need to be able to feel genuine; to be yourself; when you crave the comfort of authenticity. And for most of us (though there are exceptions, of course), despite our multicultural, multilingual upbringing and multiple exotic experiences, that can only happen in one language. We do not necessarily seek out people who speak our “comfort language” to that we can continue to lead the same life we led back home; we seek them because it feels good to be ourselves from time to time. In our nomadic life, that comfort is essential.

The space between

I have wanted to write this post for a while. A comment on a previous post made me think about how we – foreigners, expats, global nomads – raise our children; the choices we make with respect to their education; our aspirations, explicit and implicit, for their present and future lives. While we each have our own ideas, methods and child-rearing philosophies, there seems to be a common pattern: many of us want to turn our children into expanded versions of our – international – selves.

We go to great lengths to broaden their horizons; to open their minds to different cultures, people and perspectives; to make them multilingual, multidimensional, multicultural, citizens of the world. We speak to them in our mother tongues and teach them about our native cultures. We travel with them; send them to international schools; hire native speakers as caregivers to teach them their languages; sign them up for immersion camps and exchange years abroad. And this does not only happen in bicultural or multicultural families; I know several couples who come from the same culture, speak the same language and decide to raise their children bilingually.
We make all these efforts to equip our children with their world citizen identity, knowing that at the same time, we are pulling them further and further away from any
specific cultural identity. They will learn to embrace our home cultures, but will never be native in any of them, since they will not have lived in them. They will travel and live in many different places and the world will be their oyster but where exactly will be their place in that world? Like us, our children will be neither here nor there. They will inhabit an intermediate space: the transitional, the “almost home,” but not really. They will be foreigners like us, only an enhanced version.
The paradox is that we raise them to be perpetual foreigners even though we struggle with our own foreignness. Why do we set them up for that kind of life? Do we recognise benefits for them that outweigh the challenges and adversity that
they will confront?
Absolutely. We actually want them to have that life – our life. We want them to experience the richness, the stimulation, the
excitement. They may often feel like foreigners, but what they will have seen and learned and experienced will make up for that – in our book. They may feel homeless and rootless sometimes, but only in conventional terms. Essentially, they can always be at home, because their concept of home will become deeper and much more portable. And yes, they will get lonely and miss their friends, who will be spread out all over the world, but their life will be richer because of those friends.
That said, they didn’t choose this life. What if, at some point in the future, they turn around and tell us that they would rather have lived in one place, put down roots in one
community and made lifelong friends? What will we tell them then? Most of us just
keep hoping that moment will never come.