Part 1 of a series of posts on Home-Longing.
If my sister speaks English to me, there is a first, instinctive reaction within me that says, “Why are you speaking to me like that?” It’s not because there’s anything wrong with her tone or words, but simply because English is not our first language.
English was a foreign language that we acquired. We did not grow up speaking English, did not fight or argue in English, and did not learn sisterly affection in English. Consequently, English doesn’t fully reflect the nature of our relationship, nor does it capture exactly the sentiments that we want to express to each other. The language that does these things is Indonesian, our mother tongue.
Of course, we get more used to speaking English to each other because we live in the U.S. Yet the psychology of speaking Indonesian vs. English is something that, I don’t think, we can change. Speaking a foreign language to each other makes us feel foreign to each other. It just feels weird, too formal, we often say, as if the language puts a distance between us.
To Understand and Be Understood
Language plays a powerful role in creating that visceral sense of home and belonging in a person. There’s nothing simpler than feeling like you belong when you hear people speak in your native language, especially in a foreign place. This homey feeling comes from the very basic premise of language, which is to connect and communicate to another person on the same terms. To understand and be understood, without having to explain much to say something simple, is to feel at rest, at home.
On the flip side, there’s nothing that makes you feel more foreign than being in a room of people who speak an entirely different language. In this sense, language difference is the first obvious signal of your foreignness. And to find people who speak the way you do is to find your tribe.
The Need for Exposure
As in other cultural experiences, the realization of how deep your mother tongue relates to your psyche probably would not come until you step out of your own world or take on another language. If you never left home, then you’d probably never feel homesick. The more prevalent feeling may be, “I need to get out and see the world.” Yet often, you learn more about yourself and your origin once you can compare and contrast it with a different experience.
Which is why I’m an advocate of multilingualism. Learning a second language is always a good idea. Learning a third or fourth, and for the masters, fifth, sixth language, and so on, brings a different experience each time. And adding a language enriches rather than diminishes your ability in any particular language, analogous to C.S. Lewis’ description of friendship when it is expanded from two to three people: the more we share our minds with different languages, the more we have of each, since each language shines a light on another, whether by comparison or by contrast.
Back to the Mother Tongue
Yet through all the tours of other world languages, nothing will compare to the intimacy and dearness of your own mother tongue.
Nelson Mandela said,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Your mother tongue is your home. My reading interview with Justin Kim touched on this point a little bit, on the difference between reading in our first and second languages. For me, reading in English is more cerebral, even though this is the primary language I read in these days. The analytical part of my brain is engaged more to make sure I understand what the sentence is saying. Reading in Indonesian, though, is entirely different. It’s more natural, and more often than not, I can read faster in Indonesian. I can sense the musicality of the language more, appreciate the poetry in the sentences more, and feel the text more viscerally. When I read a piece of Indonesian literature, I could feel the humidity of the air, the muddy soil, the smell after the rain, the cracks and stains on the wall, the corner kitchen with blackened wall, the vibrant green that only belongs to tropical floras. It is an echo of where I came from.
Now, another person’s mother tongue is just as precious to them as it is to you, and as Trevor Noah writes, when you reach out to communicate to someone else in their mother tongue, it becomes a powerful acknowledgement and affirmation of their identity and culture… More on this in a future post.
If you happen to be bilingual/multilingual, how have other languages make you appreciate your mother tongue? What’s your experience in reading in multiple languages? Comment below! I would love to hear your story.