The Language That Speaks to My Heart

by multilingualmania on September 2, 2010

in Bilingualism, Language and Identity

Czech Phrasebook, Or, Excitement (98/365)It starts on the airplane, before we’ve even taken off. A quiet Dobrý den from the cabin crew, Lidové noviny to read. Bilingual signs on the back of each seat: Pokud sedíte, pripoutejte se. Fasten seatbelts while seated. A thrill, and kind of an amusing novelty, to see and hear this language used – in public! My language, represented in our house only by me, is now used as a means of communicating actual information by actual people.

It continues when we land: signs, advertisements, billboards, all in my language, the one that is close to my soul and that I never hear anybody but me speak. A businessman on his cell phone. Two friends at the airport coffeeshop. The radio in the taxi on the way home as I process the reality that yes, I am here, they are really using this language, it is not a dream.

And a small moment in between, just when we touch down onto Czech soil. They play Má vlast over the speaker system and I release a breath I didn’t know I was holding. I am here.

Over the next few days I adjust to being back. I eat mainly rohlíky and drink iced green tea. I get my tongue reacquainted with speaking Czech to everyone I meet, not just my husband . I hear the rise and fall (or monotone!) of Czechs speaking Czech and think to myself, Yes! That’s it, that’s how it is supposed to sound. In my life in England there is no one to speak Czech to me. No Czech to hear but my own. I speak it to my husband, but he answers me in Slovak, his language. I have a couple of friends I speak Czech with, but they are Slovak, too. When I hear the rhythms and intonations of Czech all around me, I can feel my own language improve a bit, picking itself up and brushing itself off from where it had slipped. Reading books and talking to my husband doesn’t keep it from slipping, a bit.

I have to search for a word here and there. It doesn’t come without effort, at first. Just like I had difficulty in England in the beginning. It wasn’t natural to speak so much English. I didn’t know how to explain things quite right in English. I couldn’t find the podložky I needed for my baby in England, and I couldn’t explain what they were in English. We did without. And I learned how to speak English to strangers again, after being my language of home and friends and vulnerability for so long.

I still have to search for a word here and there in English. In Czech, too, a bit more often than in English. Because Czech, this language that is close to my heart, it is not native. The lines almost begin to blur for me, between what is native and what is natural, between the world in which I was born and the world I chose, but no, I did not learn Czech smiling at my mother’s knee. I learned it twenty years later, with charts and lists and cast-iron determination.

Doesn’t it bother you, my mother asked on the night before my wedding, that for the rest of your life the first word out of your mouth will be English and the first word out of his will be something else? No, I said, and didn’t know how to explain why. But now I can say with authority, the first word out of either of our mouths has a good chance of being in any of our three languages. Often followed by a word in one of the other three. And that does not bother me.

But how can I explain that to my mother, who taught me to talk, or to any other person who hasn’t experienced it, that it isn’t that simple? It isn’t a matter of speaking THIS language automatically and THIS language only with an effort. They both flow effortlessly sometimes, and they both take concentration at others. I forget words and use circumlocutions like “baby pushy thing” when what I really want to say is kocárek. How do I explain what it means not to translate but to really think in another language, or sometimes to think in both languages at once and then laugh at the word salad that occasionally results? How can I explain to my mother, who taught me to talk and how to be, that yes, things are different here, but that I think of them as normal? That it takes an adjustment to return here, but not to the extent she might imagine? I have to learn this culture just like I have to learn this language, but both the culture and the language fit me. Some things I still work to understand, but in some ways I was Czech before I knew what it meant to be Czech. (A country where they only ask “How are you?” when they really mean it?? Hand me a passport application, baby!)

I often hear that your native language is the one that speaks most to your soul, that is closest to your heart, and that any foreign language is only put on like a coat. But as the lines blur and native and natural change and shift, I have to wonder who comes up with descriptions like that (and how well they speak their foreign language). How is it possible that a language that is not native can be in my soul and in my heart? Don’t you see? Czech is close to my soul because it is not native. I pulled it to me, so that I could understand it. I pulled it into my soul and my heart and I refused to let go. I made it a part of myself because my passion was to understand. I don’t wear Czech like a coat, not any more; I wear it like my skin, and like my skin, I could never take it off completely. No more than I could shrug off English and leave it in the hands of a porter. They are both a part of me, inside me and all around me, and they both inform who I am in my heart. Sometimes one is dominant, sometimes the other; my vocabulary in each is a little different; but both are me.

I think I can begin to understand my husband when he says English is a part of me; I don’t differentiate. I wanted to be sure, before I married him, that I understood his native language, because what if he was different? What if I didn’t know him in Slovak? By the time we married I was able to understand Slovak well enough to know that he wasn’t different in English. He is himself, in English and in Slovak. He is equally sarcastic and full of attitude in both languages. As, now, am I. I can’t say that I am different in either language, either, because I am me in both. Neither one is the authentic me that must then be translated into the other language. Czech is a part of me and the time I spent away from Czech Republic is time spent in exile.

It might sound like there is no part of Czech life I don’t adore, but that’s actually not quite true. There are still things I struggle to understand (tea for babies? Seriously?) and some I simply refuse to get on board with (tea for babies, and any mention of a pruvan…). In my process of becoming Czech I do not entirely leave behind my English identity – although I definitely leave behind large chunks of what is “American”. But I do hold something back from Czech, something small and stubborn that pipes up saying, “But we are Slovak!” With my husband and daughter I don’t use the Czech vocative, the way of calling someone’s name with a different ending. It doesn’t exist in Slovak and to my husband it is strange and foreign, so I call him and our daughter in Slovak instead. It is a small thing, but it reminds us: We are Slovaks and Americans; we are not bound by your rules.

People often exclaim at how amazing it is that I speak Czech even though I am married to a Slovak – how do I keep the languages separate? The truth is I keep them mostly separate, but my Czech is influenced by Slovak in my word choice, my intonations, even the food I eat (we eat a lot of bryndza in our house…). It isn’t much, but it’s enough that people occasionally think I’m originally Slovak. That makes me pretty proud.

Sorting out the Czech from the Slovak in my heart would be even more difficult than disentangling the English from the Czech. Either is an impossible task and, in the end, not particularly a worthwhile goal. I am Czech and I am English. To look at my family, you would not say which of us is from which country. I go out wearing a sweatshirt that says Ceská republika and my husband’s says OU Sooners. I ask a question in Czech and he answers in Slovak, then makes a comment in English. We have both embraced each other’s culture so fully that we could almost miss each other in the middle! I have to say I think there are worse ways to run a relationship.

Being back in this country is right in a way no other place I’ve been is right, but we will still have adjustments as we return. Not everything is perfect here and maybe we will even leave again someday. If we do, I will carry Czech close to my soul. I will leave this place with a heart both American and Czech. Even if I should never return, I can never forget this language that is as near to me, as flawed, as necessary, as my own skin. Whatever else I am or may become, look into my heart and you will see a plate of svícková and a city of one hundred spires.

Note: Certain letters of the Czech alphabet would not display correctly in WordPress, so please pardon a few letters that are missing accents.

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?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

smashedpea September 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

Great post, Melissa!!
Quite awesome, the impact (an)other language(s) can have on one. In many ways, I feel like you do – and it makes me wonder how the kids will fare, or maybe more accurately what they will make of their own situation, our kids who have been exposed to other languages, culture, history and all the rest of it so much earlier than you and I were.

Thanks for posting, Melanie!

Corey Heller September 2, 2010 at 2:25 pm

You must be my non-native language soul-sister, Melissa! I can relate to every word of this (including the questions from my mother!). What an amazing post.

You describe so well that which is actually indescribable… the feeling, the flavor, the subtleties of how we can live and then *gasp* raise our children in a language which is not native to us (yet feels as native, if not more so, in a very special way). As you say: we made the conscious effort of pulling this language to us. We weren’t offered it along with our daily routine of growing up. Instead, we wanted it, fought for it, begged for it and ultimately fell in love with it. We can’t help but raise our children in it. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!


Sarah @ Baby Bilingual September 26, 2010 at 1:52 am

Beautiful, Melissa. A lovely essay. And it also leaves me a little envious, because I don’t feel like my non-native French is my skin yet. I think it’s a cape that I wrap around my son and myself. We whisper secrets to each other under the cape, but there’s not enough room for my monolingual husband.

Solnushka September 26, 2010 at 10:52 am

Lovely description. My other language is functional rather than fluent, but it is a part of me, as is its culture. I certainly couldn’t not bring up my son to have that too.

Melissa September 29, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thank you, all of you! I really appreciate your comments. I’m so glad this resonated with someone! I’m afraid it’s too late at night to come up with something really profound to say but it means a lot to me. :)

Learning a Language October 13, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Great post Melissa.

I know someone who is exactly like you and she is very proud having a second language and she’s loving it.

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