Native language

Here I am, back at blogging, and this time... in English. The idea is to write in both languages on this blog, so that there's a little bit of something for everyone. 


You've probably had this feeling before: when there's something in the back of your mind that you don't fully understand. That is, until someone says something, or you read a book and... BAM, the inarticulate idea becomes a reality, something someone else was able to analyse, discuss, and share with you. I love when that happens.


In this case, I was reading David Bellos's classic book on translation Is that a Fish in Your Ear?. I highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the ways in which language works and the relationship we have with words, both spoken and written. The chapter "Native Command: Is Your language really yours?" rang particularly true to me. In it, Bellos assesses the legitimicy of talking about a "Native language" as the only criteria for good translations and as the sole indicator of someone's linguistic mastery. Here's a quote that is particularly relevant: 


The passport you hold doesn't have anything to do with your competence as a translator; nor does the language that you learned in your infant environment. What matters is whether you are or feel you are at home in the language into which you are translating. It doesn't really help to call it 'native', and it helps even less to insist that you can only translate into a 'mother' tongue. The paths by which speakers come to feel at home in a language are far too varied for the range of their abilities to be forced into merely two slots ('native' and 'non-native'), however broad or flexible the definitions of those slots may be. (pp.64-65)


Being bilingual, it has always been hard for me to say which language, between French and English, was my "mother tongue". In a purely technical sense, I would have to say English, since that's my mother's primary language. However, I learned French first, since I was spending my days as a young child in Paris with a nanny who was French and with whom I interacted all day, along with other children who all were beginning to speak. The streets were filled with French-speakers and, later on, my elementary school was francophone. Home, for me, was French, despite my mother's insistance that I use that "other" language with her. 


And then I caught up with English, thanks to a bilingual education in junior high and high-school. I then went to university in England and I was speaking English all the time, and reading: reading theory, plays and American novels. I was increasingly finding myself at home with the vocabulary, the sentence structure and the overall vibe of English. It was becoming my home base.


The joy of bilingualism is that you can have more than one home, and, thus, more than one "native" language. Let me rephrase this : the joy of acquiring more than one language means that you can have more than one home. But it doesn't come easy. Languages can be fickle little things, especially if they're left alone, unattended. I've needed to regain the trust of French : cajole it and use it all the time in order to remember its specificities. And as soon as I feel like French and I are doing well, along comes English, tapping me on the shoulder and asking why I've been away so long.

But I know that they're both there, that I know them well, and that I want to continue to learn through them.









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