The Blank Page, The Fresh Start: Language and Identity

by multilingualmania on October 6, 2010

in Bilingualism, Language and Identity

Czech Phrasebook, Or, Excitement (98/365) I popped into being eight years ago, a 22-year-old with no personality to speak of. No family, no education, no achievements. No personality to speak of. Had I had an identity before? Had anything happened to me before? Did I have any thoughts, any experience, anything to offer the people around me? In a very real sense, no.

I began to exist in the Czech world when I learned my first Czech word: prosím (please). Anything in me that couldn’t be expressed in the word(s) I knew simply remained unexpressed. My prior knowledge was useless now. I didn’t understand the thoughts of others, couldn’t share my own thoughts and was generally dependent on whatever amount of English the people around me were able and/or willing to speak. I also became fairly adept at charades.

Slowly, like a baby, I learned to understand the words around me and to use them myself. I was still fairly colorless, since personality has a hard time shining through when it takes five minutes, three grammar charts and a west wind to get a sentence out properly. It took a great deal of patience, on both sides, to have a conversation with me. Fortunately, some people had the patience and the grace to form relationships with me, even though at any moment I might – like a child – do something completely socially unacceptable without realizing it.

I could communicate my basic needs and, occasionally, an abstract thought, but what came out was a dull reflection of what it started out as, in my head. On a good day, I might understand the substance of the conversation around me and see an opening for a comment, but by the time I got all my grammatical ducks in a row, the moment was long gone. Did I have any insight into the topic? As far as anyone knew – NO!

I could see in the eyes of people around me that they didn’t see ME. They saw a blank canvas, uneducated, inexperienced, unfunny. Passive. The truth is I am far from that; I am educated, I have thoughts, and, let’s face it, I’m hilarious. It was simply all trapped inside me, unnoticed. But as I came to see in my early days in Prague, none of that MATTERED to someone who didn’t speak English to encounter the real me. Not exactly fair, maybe, but the truth is each language has a world of its own, and in that world nothing you do and nothing you are is of much significance unless you can communicate it to that world. And I wasn’t willing to limit myself to only people kind enough to speak English with me. I didn’t want to live in a world in translation.

I saw the surprise in my friends’ eyes the first time I made a joke in Czech (one word, but humor is in timing and delivery!). “I’m back!!” I thought, with a fierce sense of triumph. They had no idea that I had a sense of humor before that. I raised my eyebrows when my future in-laws described me as “so sweet, so quiet.” As far as they knew, it was true: since they don’t speak English, I spent most of my time with them smiling pleasantly, not saying a word! I knew they’d be in for a surprise eventually, when they met the real me. And you know? They were. I have thoughts, I have opinions, I don’t agree with everything they say! I think they’ve gotten over the shock of a daughter-in-law who talks now.

With an extraordinary amount of determination and pestering of my friends with questions like “But WHY can’t you say it that way?” my Czech improved, and with it people’s perception of me/my personality. People asked my opinion now, and listened as I gave it! I became a person. A person who occasionally said, for example, “towel” instead of “purgatory”, but still, a person with valid thoughts and opinions most of the time.

And if you’re wondering, I had a PERFECTLY LOGICAL rationale for thinking that word might mean “purgatory”! I always have an extensive rationale, reached in the split second between one word and the next, for the things I say that turn out to be mistakes. Perfectly logical, perfectly consistent, perfectly wrong. This offers my husband no end of amusement.

Slowly, like a child growing up, I learned to communicate better and better, until someone who just met me took a while to realize that I’m not from ‘round these parts. Even the people who have known me since I was a blank page start to forget I’m a foreigner, until I do something to remind them. Like a child, I absorbed the language, the habits, the music, the movies, the worldview of the people around me. I made them my own so that I would understand and be understood. I developed an identity relevant to the world I chose to live in. My knowledge of Catch-22 doesn’t mean much to most people, but drop a reference to Švejk and I’m in.

I have to say it was disorienting, going from being someone in my own country to no one in my new country. You have to drop your ego and accept that while you may know how to drive and do algebra, in most other things a four-year-old has the advantage. Learning Czech taught me a few things about what is universal and what is relative, what is intrinsically me and what is because I was born in America, and most of all, what I am willing to let go without my sense of self being threatened.

A Czech acquaintance once told me, “You are the most Czech foreigner I’ve ever met.” I took it as it was meant, as a compliment. This was in my toddler days, so it wasn’t related to language; it was the way my personality naturally coincides with some aspects of Czech culture. Czechs are a reserved people: I am a naturally reserved person. Czechs have a black, sarcastic sense of humor: I have a black, sarcastic sense of humor. Czechs don’t put ice in their drinks: I don’t put ice in my drinks. From fundamental to frivolous, a lot of my personal quirks turned out to be totally in line with Czech culture!

In some ways therefore learning Czech allowed me to be more myself than I had been before. Then it stretched me in ways comfortable and uncomfortable until I lost the shyness, the fear, even some of the perfectionism that held me back before. And as I’ve written about before, those changes affected me as a whole, not just the part of me that was learning Czech.

A course in humility and making a slight fool of yourself in public like you get when learning a second language, well, that doesn’t just leave you exactly the same as you were. You change. Ideally, you grow. I grew. I learned to let things go. I think that not being completely tied to my own way of doing things helped me to adapt to a new life – not to mention an eventual cross-cultural marriage – without either losing myself or failing to truly connect with this new world of mine.

I still make mistakes. I still have moments of disconnect, where an ill-judged “ch” (would you believe it, r, t,d * I can say and it’s ch that gives me trouble), a stray “um”, the wrong prefix, not knowing the word for “extension cord”, catches my companions’ attention and reminds them I wasn’t always the person I am now. I think that will happen less over time. I wouldn’t say that I’ve entirely grown up yet. Maybe someday. I’m only eight, after all.

*Note: Unfortunately not all Czech letters will display correctly on our WordPress platform.

About the Author: Melissa is an American married to a Slovak, based in Prague, Czech Republic (but temporarily living outside London, UK), raising a 2.5 year old daughter with English, Slovak and Czech.  Melissa speaks English and Czech and understands Slovak, her husband speaks Slovak and English (and French, Hungarian and some Russian), and their daughter K speaks English and Slovak and will be learning Czech when they return to Prague from England later this year.  You can follow their language learning and language mixing experiences at Where Going Havo?

Other Articles By Melissa:

Monolingual Reactions to a Bilingual Baby

The Language That Speaks to My Heart

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy October 18, 2010 at 10:08 am

Great, great post. Loved it. I love how you describe your personality coming to light with your enhanced grasp of the language. I’m studying linguistics right now and we just covered a chapter that was similar, but much less entertaining!

Sarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual October 19, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Another lovely essay, Melissa–thanks for sharing your perspective. My first time abroad (in France) was quite a different experience, since I had been studying the language for five years (and had no future in-laws to contend with). I understand better now what it must be like to be clueless in a country so important to oneself.

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