Writing in a Non-Native Language: Choosing Whom to Love
During my adolescence, I fell in love with a language before I fell in love with a human being. In high school, in India, a former colony of the British, I came to like—and then love—the English language. The first words I had learned as a baby were Bengali, one of the many languages spoken in India, but, like many of my neighbors and friends, I went to an English-medium school. We had learned the English alphabet at home, even before kindergarten, which was the beginning of a journey. It was a choice and it wasn’t. Many parents in India prefer to educate their children through the English medium, and mine did. It was not until high school, though, when I discovered, like the first stirrings of love, my secret longing, then still inchoate, for a language considered foreign. It was the British who had left the language behind while quitting the country, in 1947, as though they had forgotten a belonging while departing in haste. Learning a foreign, or non-native language, or a language other than one’s mother tongue is always difficult—I remember the embarrassment in ninth grade when I couldn’t tell the difference between “occasionally” and “periodically” in class when the teacher asked. But, as I plodded through the thicket of English, I fell in love with it, vowing to achieve “native” fluency and skill.
As I grew up, I continued my affair with the English language and dreamed of becoming a journalist or writer. What if I chose to write in Bengali, my mother tongue, or Hindi, the language closest to a lingua franca in India? Did I even have a choice? I did. I could write in Hindi, but I chose English. I had a choice at least when I became autonomous—Indian parents often impose their choices on their children, assuming they know what’s best for their children as they prepare for careers. People in most English-speaking countries don’t have as much choice, for English is the only mother tongue spoken. When we have more than one language to pick from, we are, deep in our hearts, torn with conflict, even though we may achieve mastery in our chosen language. Are we betraying our mother tongue when we turn to another language? There may be multiple lovers, but we must ultimately choose one. We decide whom to love, but in the process we welter in a sea of ambivalence. And, then, when we switch to another midway through life, abandoning the one we have been married to, the outcome or the experience may not meet our or others’ expectations.
For writer and Ploughshares blogger Bruna Dantas Lobato, embracing English came with its joys and challenges. She learned English as a necessity at the age of 17, when she was still in her native Brazil. Learning the language changed her life; English—though she says it could be any language—made her “yearn” to be a writer. Learning another language can become an obsession. But, for her, too, learning English came with its own problems, both aesthetic and political:
With childhood in one language and a writing life in the other, I’m standing both inside and outside my mother tongue and my stepmother tongue. I feel equally confident and tentative in both languages, a foreigner and a local in both worlds, experiencing nostalgia for childhood and a sense of profound loss of intimacy.
Immigrant writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s struggles and joys were similar to mine, though not exactly the same. She grew up in the United States in a Bengali home. She says, in a New Yorker essay on her genesis as a writer:
Bengali was my first language … But the books of my childhood were in English, and their subjects were, for the most part, either English or American lives. I was aware of a feeling of trespassing.
Growing up, her distance from Bengali made her feel it was, paradoxically, a foreign language. She says, in a more recent essay in The New Yorker, this one on her struggles to learn Italian:
In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement.
She took up the challenge to learn, and write in, Italian because she wanted a “metamorphosis.” Even though she managed to learn the language well enough to write stories in it, she faced negative reactions from people. “They say they don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue. They don’t want me to change,” she says in the essay, “Teach yourself Italian.” Her latest book, In Other Worlds, which is in Italian and English, has, indeed, received a lukewarm response at least in The New York Times.
Mastering—and appropriating—a foreign language can be a joy and struggle. The non-native speaker has certain advantages and challenges. On the one hand, perhaps because of the close attention they pay to the language of their choice, non-native writers of English are often great stylists. Aleksander Hemon, who immigrated to the United States and started learning English in 1991, is compared with two other writers, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, whose mother tongue wasn’t English. A Bomb magazine interview celebrates “Hemon’s pitch-perfect diction and virtuosic command of the English language.”
On the other hand, a “multilingual world” of the non-native writer is not always “romantic.” Labato says, “It strikes me every now and then that there are people who don’t have to doubt their words the way I do, who aren’t self-conscious.” Ah! She is a kindred soul. I weigh words and look up the dictionary even today, frequently when in doubt. Another challenge is the hurdle posed by editors who insist on “native” writers for writing assignments.
In spite of the challenges, I wouldn’t trade English for any other language, even though I have always dreamed of going beyond my French 109, which I took in graduate school. I also feel a twinge of regret at not having the command over my mother tongue to appreciate the great Bengali authors, like Rabindranath Tagore.
Do I rue my affair with the English language, then? No, English and I are inseparable. Indeed, embracing a language is often spoken of as attraction. According to the New York Times review of Lahiri’s Italian book, she speaks of Italian “as one speaks of an intense sexual affair.”
“When you’re in love, you want to live forever,” Lahiri writes in her Italian book.
I want to live as long as I can wield the English language.