Revealing the Magic in Language

“Language was not just a string of words. It had a suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through nonsensical but musically arranged words.”

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My mother told me that there are words in her home language — Ibibio — that do not translate into English. Her language contains its own suggestive magical power, and I’m grateful that bits and pieces of my parents’ first language have been passed on to me. Now that I’ve entered adulthood, I think about what I will pass on to my children. I want to tell them the truth of my life — yes — I grew up without knowing my parents’ first language. A language that was often spoken in our home, and used to express the feelings that my first language, English, could not fully comprehend. I also want to show them what I’ve learned. They need to know that our language is musical and uses the wisdom of proverbs to teach some of life’s greatest lessons. One day, I hope to speak the language of my parents, and open this untapped part of myself.

Language is a way to pass on a history of a people, their memories, and their dreams. Now, I ask my mother to teach me the words and sentences I want to pass on, How does one express love? How do I express my eagerness to connect to another person? If someone in your family’s first language is not English, weaving in their language can broaden the scope of the story you’re trying to tell. These are some tools I have used to tell a story of history, culture, and how we communicate.

  1. Interview Family Members — How do you say I love you? What are your fondest memories of speaking your first language? What was it like having to learn English? When we ask these questions and hear the answers, we find that these individual stories reflect a collective experience of migration, and assimilation. We connect to a larger history of people negotiating issues of language and access every single day. Weaving these interviews throughout your history project can make your story all the more impactful.
  2. Learn Songs — Or proverbs, or riddles, or words, or phrases. I grew up with songs and particular idioms that expressed sentiments of joy and frustration. I grew up singing spiritual songs that taught me about my people’s way of knowing. Singing songs was my entry into learning my parents language, it was also a great way for us to practice together.
  3. Keep Adding to your Story — Stories are not static. They constantly shift and re-imagine themselves because we are living. Hopefully, you’ll see your project as something to keep building on. If your family story speaks to a history of colonization, ancestral trauma, forced migration, and displacement, seeing your project as a way to humanize your story is a way to restore what may have been broken. Through the next generations — and hopefully our generation — the culture and knowledge of our ancestors does not have to end. Thankfully with the History Project, you have the tools and media at your disposal to expand on any idea, event, or artifact.
  4. Find Other Stories — Find other people who express pride in their first languages. It’s interesting to see how people from around the world decide what will be their primary way of communicating. From Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to Rigoberta Menchu, to Eduardo Galeano. These people speak of staying true to one’s self in the face of great odds. If we’re to look to our families, we may find anecdotes of resilience and beauty in the revelations of their lives.
  5. Learn the Meaning of your Name — This is essential to know. It’s important to know why a specific name was chosen for you because it may have a reason you never imagined. You may even want to investigate why you could have two names. One Americanized name, and the other name only spoken by those who really know you. This is a great way to do some self exploration and investigate your personal relationship to your name. I took the meaning of my name for granted until I was well into adulthood. I had no clue that there could be so much magic in a name until I stopped to listen.

Working on my project was a reflective experience. In a way, it has gently nudged me to look more closely at my life and the people I love. Uncovering the restorative power of language can be a great way to begin.