Speaking in Tongues

Today at lunch time, my coworker and I were talking about our failed plans from last year to brush up on our french language skills. We did the proficiency tests last year (surprisingly, I’m at level 2, which is intermediate), and then went to sign up for classes, only to find that the classes didn’t suit our work schedules. It was sad, but this is what happens when you work. She suggested that the two of us have a one-hour french lesson every week in order to keep each other accountable about seriously learning the language. We have jokingly dubbed it l’heure francaise in our Outlook Calendars.

Language learning and speaking have always been deeply embedded passion of mine. Like most immigrant families that form various diasporas (my own come to Canada via East Africa from India), the buzz of different languages was part of my upbringing. At any one time, we communicate in multiple languages, dipping in and out without losing meaning. At times, certain emotions or phrases can only be expressed in one language and often not in others. My mother speaks at least five that I know of. I speak an equal amount (with a smattering of a few others — for some reason, my ear picks up the romantic languages with ease).

It’s no wonder that my interest in language has continued ardently to grow over time. I recently read an article on the BBC about “hyperglots”, that is, people who speak at least 10 languages. I thought that this was remarkable, and I have to admit I suffered a little bit of envy.

Language to me is more than just the exposure to communication amongst other people and cultures and an arduous brain exercise. As the article says, language can expose different sides of personality and essentially can “remake” a person. This is not linked with inauthenticity; rather it is a function of the expressiveness or poetics of a language. A 2012 study of multilinguals found that fluency played a major role in whether a person felt authentic in languages other than their mother tongue. Another study of pentalinguals (people who can speak five languages) showed that early acquisition of language resulted in more rich, poetic, usefulness feelings about the language than acquiring them in later life. Learning as a child makes the process organic and it becomes embedded in who you are. It makes sense that the more comfortable you are in expressing yourself in another language, the more confident you become.

I never quite realized that language influenced changes in personality — I have noticed the subtle shifts in my family when we switch languages. My mother is stern in English, grounded in kutchi, relaxed in Swahili and formal in Urdu and Hindi.

So how do you learn a new language? As David Robson points out that resisting the process of reinvention, which is necessary for language (perhaps you do need to speak more passionately if you speak Italian, regardless of whether you’re a reserved British woman.), tends to stymie new learners. A review by Madeline Ehrman stated that risk taking and tolerance for ambiguity were linked to language learning strategies — namely that those with higher tolerance for ambiguity were more likely to take risks in learning a language. They were less likely to be tripped up by fears of looking foolish or of criticism.

Like any worthwhile activity (I completely support it as such), language learning is a risk, it a slow process and can at times be frustrating and embarrassing. I manage to embarrass myself in the other languages that I speak — my mother laughs at my sorry-sounding Swahili now. Learning to communicate in another tongue opens up a whole new world of poetry, of untranslatable phrases, and of emotional states that can only be described out of the realm of what we know every day.

This fall, I’ve had the brilliant idea of taking some Italian lessons. I’ve loved the language for a long time, and it might just be the right time to explore another facet of my personality. I’m excited and scared, but I look forward to one day being able to call myself a hyperglot.

Do you speak a different language? Does it change your personality?

Originally published at mehnazthawer.com.