How Learning New Languages Has Shaped My Identity

By France François

My family moved from Haiti to Miami, Florida in the early ‘80s — and as is typical of the first-generation immigrant experience, our ethnic enclave could feel removed from our adopted country. Family dinners meant rice and beans, rather than tuna casseroles. Maltas, not Cokes or sweet tea, were the beverage of choice to cool off with on hot summer days. Kisses on the cheek were the preferred greeting over firm handshakes. At home, my primary language was Haitian Creole, not English.

And so, when I received my very first invitation to the birthday party of a non-Haitian girl in my class, I was both excited and confused. For me, parties were essentially family gatherings where all your cousins came to dance to kompa music and tell stories from the Haiti of their memories. I didn’t have any stories to share with this American girl, and she wasn’t related to me — so what was I supposed to do at her party?

“Americans have parties so you can bring them a present,” my little brother told everyone matter-of-factly when I informed my parents of the invitation. My father scoffed at the idea.“Si w ap fèe fèt, ou pi biyen pase m!” — “If you’re having a birthday party, clearly you’re doing better than I am, so why would I bring you a gift?”

That single sentence reveals a lot about the Haitian people, culture, and language. Our history has embedded hardship and humor into the very way we speak. Haitian Creole — the result of language contact among speakers of 17th century colloquial French and of the various Niger-Congo languages spoken by enslaved Africans — is essentially a language born of struggle. That collective adversity has moved our focus from the individual to the group, and has made deflective humor a cornerstone of the way we communicate. Rather than dwelling on centuries of failed government, coups, international intervention, and disasters, Haitians laugh to keep from crying, diverting attention away from ourselves via jokes and proverbs.

During a particularly tense economic and political period in his first term, for example, then-Haitian president René Preval nonchalantly addressed the country by saying, “naje pou’w soti.” Translation: “If you don’t like the way things are going, swim to get out of water.” How did the Haitian people respond to this flippancy? With humor as a form of insubordination: His comment was turned into one of the most popular Carnival songs of that year, complete with an accompanying dance.

For decades, under Haiti’s dictatorships, Haitians could not speak openly about even the most mundane topics, much less be critical of the world in which they lived without fear of being disappeared or worse. Learning to master speaking in metaphors, jokes, and proverbs — or, as the case may be, coded song lyrics — became an essential means of survival. As one Haitian joke goes: There was a man about to be killed by his political enemies. Before they killed him, they asked him if he wanted a cigarette. “No,” the unfortunate man replied, “I gave up smoking. It’s bad for your health!”

Although that period of Haitian history has come to an end, as children we still learn this double-speak so as not to offend. As a result, I am more deferential in Creole — careful to think about the greater good and conscious of being thought of as respectful in the language I learned from my parents, who’d fled a dictatorship with me in tow in the dead of the night. Any criticisms I do convey in Creole come in the form of biting, subversive humor.

When I speak my native language, I communicate in a specific way that’s inextricably linked to Haiti itself. And this communication style has, in turn, shaped who I am. But it is not just Creole that has helped to define my identity; as I’ve become multilingual, learning both English and Spanish, my sense of self has become further multifaceted — contoured by how I speak in those languages.

I didn’t truly learn to speak English like an American until I left Miami for D.C., where I was no longer surrounded by immigrants who tend to infuse the language of their adopted home with certain cultural nuances and values. Soon after arriving in the nation’s capital, I realized that Americans found my animated hand gestures alarming, and were less appreciative of colorful euphemisms and contemplative idioms.

At one of my first jobs, I was asked my thoughts about a particular project during a staff meeting. This was an old, failed project that had been repackaged and revived for reasons that I couldn’t fathom. I sat back in my chair and responded, “A leaky house can fool the sun, but it can’t fool the rain” (in Haitian Creole: “Kay koule twonpe solèy; men, li pa twonpe lapli”). I followed the statement with a few spontaneous hand gestures for emphasis, of course.

My colleagues’ faces went from surprise to confusion and back. A few people shifted in their seats to distance themselves from me, certain that I’d lost my mind. Needless to say, no one asked for my opinion again. Learning from this experience, I became direct and assertive in English instead. My reality shifted to talking about “I” — inserting myself into the language — in a way that was rare in my Haitian Creole.

Just as Haitian history has influenced the Creole language, American history has engendered this sense of directness. From the American Revolution to Manifest Destiny and beyond, the formation of the U.S. was based on dissent from authority and championing the needs of the individual. From the pioneers to professional athletes, Americans take great pride in how much individuals are able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and accomplish through their own initiative without assistance. This individualism is ingrained into the education system and every other aspect of society. We are told to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In public school as children, we learned the value of speaking up, challenging the government, peers, and even superiors if the idea of your individual success or individual liberties ever come under threat.

This is woven into the way English in spoken. When I say something in this adopted language, I “cut to the chase,” and center myself rather than focusing on the collective. Even now as an adult, if I want to be direct with my mother, I switch to English to make my point, knowing that such directness could be considered rude and self-centered in Creole. In English, I can tell my mother, “I don’t like what you did.” In Creole, however, I’d have to shift my concern and make the statement more general, like “Ou pa pense bagay sa a ka rete nan keè moun?” In English, this is an indirect euphemism for “that was a little harsh” that translates to “Don’t you think that can remain in ‘people’s hearts?”

Early this year, when I moved to Panama and started learning Spanish, I adopted still another way of interacting with the world. No longer was I focused on the collective (as in Haitian Creole) or the individual (as in English); now, it was all about the interpersonal. In Spanish, I am more earnest and inquisitive because just the act of conjugating and engendering each verb to correlate with a specific person, mood, and tense forces me to be much more aware of others and how they’ll perceive what I’m saying. Is my neighbor a man or women? Is the information I’m about to convey fact or opinion? Does it relate only to a single event, or to something that happened over time?

Reality in itself is subjective in Spanish. “We rarely speak about the future in the infinitive tense, because it is uncertain,” my Spanish teacher told me. Thus, in Spanish, I cannot be my self-assured English-speaking self unless I’m completely sure of all the facts. To convey my opinion, desires, or advice, I must use the subjunctive mood, acknowledging that there is always a level of uncertainty in life and subjectivity in my perception of it. I can say in English with certainty that it’s possible I’ll go to the beach this weekend, in the infinitive tense, and it will be largely accepted as fact. In Spanish, however, I have to acknowledge that what’s a fact for me may hold little certainty or objectivity to the listener, thus prompting me to use the subjunctive mood: “Es posible que vaya a la playa este fin de semana.”

This sensitivity to others has in turn made me more perceptive about, and open with, my own feelings. I first noticed this shift in my response to “how are you?” in Spanish. As opposed to just saying “fine,” as I would in English, my Spanish self is more intimate and emotional, giving details and descriptions about my life, my feelings, and my concerns that I wouldn’t dream of doing in any other language. Yesterday, I asked an elderly woman how she was doing; she replied that she was preoccupied with the thought that her young granddaughter was acting out because her single mother worked too much. I told her something that I had not even shared with my closest friends: We’d had the same concern with my younger sister. I proceeded to give her examples of how we tried to address the issue. Then we both paid for our groceries and waved goodbye.

I still don’t even know the name of this woman whom I had such an intimate exchange with at the cash register.

The Spanish language has fundamentally changed me. I am not an innately open person, but the language has provided me the freedom to be open in the moment. As one of my Panamanian friends observed, “Estás abierta, pero no eres abierta” (“You are an open person, but you are not an open person”). I often feel like an actress putting on a grand performance, but this performance, in pushing me to understand and embrace my emotions, has made me grateful for the stage.

By being multilingual, I’ve learned to become more intuitive, thinking about what the other person actually means, rather than what they’re explicitly saying — to connect the many nuances of language to deeper fears, joys, and frustrations. I am no more or less my truest self in any particular language, only the optimal version for its context. My native Creole taught me to give subtle meaning to a world that often makes little sense. English allowed me to claim my stake in that world. And Spanish allows me to share that world with others.

We don’t just make the language of the world we live in; it also makes us.

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