about languages… and stuff

This is about bilingualism. Or at least, that’s where I started. Then it turned out to be about identity. And then about history and information in general. I am in awe at the fact that people ever manage to stick to one `subject` – to me everything seems connected with everything else. It might be time to convert to some native religion on some virgin island 🙂 .

Aaanyway – an article about unbalanced bilingualism got me thinking about why it was that I seem to have trouble speaking my own language with my children, although it is a language I am still very comfortable in, of which I love the versatility and of which, conceptually, I want them to have the benefit. Of course, there are all the contextual excuses – that the home language is the same as my partner’s language and the school language, therefore it’s far more contexts of Dutch to outbalance Romanian exposure; that I have to switch a lot and that I am not comfortable with the people in the room not knowing what I just forbade the kids to do or the people in the supermarket not being aware of the contents of a conversation that has them as a subject (`please let this lady pass in front of us at the register`, `watch the cart!`) etc. But there was a question in the article addressing one’s potentially internal reasons for linguistic inconsistence. And, while painting walls in the study, I went with it to see where the answer might take me.
It may be that what I often perceive, while translating, as shortcomings of Romanian in comparison to some Germanic languages is also perceived, consciously enough, as proofs of shortcomings in the `signified`, of empty spots in the fabric of `the world according to the Romanian` (because I strongly believe that language shapes the way one sees the world). It may be that those shortcomings (that I supplement linguistically by long and uneasy periphrastic constructions) become symptoms of where my original identity was lacking perspective, symptoms that I compensated by adding new layers of identity on. It might be that the fact that I am embarrassed to place the kids in front of even DVD’s dubbed into Romanian because of the sloppiness and fake tone of the translations, the unnerving quality of the TV shows when we are there on holidays and the `quick-and-dirty` way of making money by publishing children’s books/CD’s with idiotic poems/songs illustrated with a couple of animal shapes printed off the Internet without paying the rights, or printing Disney’s integral with texts that twist the language in ways it was never supposed to be twisted – drastically reduce my linguistic exposure resources – but also, mainly, get me down. It might be that my guard is down insofar as speaking Romanian is concerned because I’m all the time angry at and dissapointed with my country and that it takes an effort to filter the `now` out of the legacy of beauty that I need to pass along.
And that took me to another thought. I am very much aware that there is no such thing as absolute truth where personal or national identity and even history is concerned. But, for the sake of the game, we hold some stories to be commonplace in order to be able to relate to one another. Obviously (to me), Romantic nationalism put in place all sorts of fictions about nations and collective identities and especially about reasons to be proud of what you are (even though you have no merit at all in being born where you were born and even less in not trying to see how anyone else sees the world). These fictions have been, to large extents, debunked at some point in the 20th century – in any case to the point that nations had to admit the existence of quite a few skeletons in their closets. However, manuals all over the continent kept selling plenty of the Romantic dough – and many of us didn’t question it. I have met an extremely intelligent Finnish guy who claimed unflinchingly that the Kalevala was an absolutely unique product of national genius and that no other nation had ever produced a saga (he was a bit appalled at the wikipedia page with which we opposed his stance). Just as I have only met Dutch people being very-very-very proud of being Dutch – because oh, their commercial and colonial history and oh, their standing up to everyone and anyone and oh, such a little country among so many powerful nations and water… And of course, when asked, they will tell you that it’s not always the nicest of histories and that in fact it is based on a lot of suffering for others and mistification afterwards, but the core is unchanged – whatever is objectionable can be swept under the carpet of national pride. Where I come from, relativity in this sense has become the norm – because we know that the communist-nationalistic manuals we learned our history in gave a very warped vision of the world and because we are aware that their predecessors stem from a rather nationalistic age as well, I, for one, have no clear idea about any historic truth (apart from years and wars – which can be interpreted in all manner of ways). My lack of trustworthy information about the place I come from makes me relativise all messages I’ve ever received about my identity. Having been fed `national poets` whose value I couldn’t really, objectively, appreciate and `national values` which turn out to be inexistent in a free world, there is this fundamental lack of `pride` in my identity: there are, of course, wonderful things where I come from, but I see them being destroyed year after year by greed, stupidity, cowardice and, more than anything, a basic incapacity of working together towards any goal. So the strange thing is – I question other people’s rationale of national pride and can even find it misplaced, but, for the simplicity of self-definition, I miss it.
And this might be it – we live in a world in which nurture, as far as values are concerned, is placed significantly above nature. If you are a greatly successful farmer on land where your ancestors were greatly successful farmers, your added value is seen as minimal. If you come from a modest family and make something of yourself intelectually, it’s all your merit – these are, I think, strong and widespread beliefs (maybe `well-bred` as a concept is going to win back some force in the years to come, who knows). Conserving your given identity feels like little work, shaping a new and better one gives you an individuality which you can take pride. It might be then that it is sometimes easier speaking a foreign language because it is the signifier of who I worked to become instead of the signifier of a random complex of events shaping me from the start. With the added bonus that the people that I tried to approach were actually happy being what they were, as opposed to the people I was slowly drifting away from. In which case the right operation to sort this out might be embracing all of the identity layers instead of unconsciously fighting some of them; and only buying one’s resources at an old books’ shop 🙂 .


2 gânduri despre “about languages… and stuff

  1. It’s really a complex and disturbing feeling/state of mind. Still, here where I’m working now (Brasov/Prund) keeping one’s own identity is, in a way, the most difficult and worthy to be done thing – from the person/family/legacy point of view – than any other… I have to meditate…

  2. Pingback: Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism October 2011. « Verbosity

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