Sunday, August 3, 2014

Confessions of a Polyglot

I was invited to a meal by a Swiss family who knew I could speak Spanish. They had also invited two Guatemalan pastors who were visiting Switzerland. I was to serve as interpreter for the conversation between the Swiss family and the Guatemalans. Swiss German to Spanish. Spanish to Swiss German.

This was not an easy task for me. Neither is my mother tongue. At one point in the conversation the Swiss man asked the Guatemalans a question. I turned to them to translate the question and repeated the question to them verbatim in Swiss German. I had no idea what I had done until everyone else at the table burst out laughing.

I am a polyglot. This means that I speak several languages. This does not mean that I am totally fluent in every language I speak. When people ask me how many languages I speak, I reply that I am still learning English. The more I learn in each language I speak, the more I realize how little I know. Languages evolve and words and expressions that I learned 30 years ago are no longer used, and many new ones have entered the language.

I learned to speak Spanish after I was 19 years old. I learned to speak Swiss German after I was 32 years old. I’ve learned to understand other languages along the way, but English  is my mother tongue. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I can express myself much better in my mother tongue than in any other language. This bears itself out with two simple illustration from my own experience. There are two things that one would rather do in their mother tongue no matter where they are or what they are speaking. Count and pray. Trying to figure out how much something costs for me always gets translated into English. No matter how long I’ve lived somewhere. Same thing with prayer. God understands me better in English.
It is true that sometimes when I am completely immersed in the language that is not my mother tongue, I find myself thinking in that language. Yet, when it is time to go into a store or some other space to speak with someone new, I find myself composing sentences in my head before I enter. This never happens in English. I have enough resources in my native tongue that I can simply enter a new space and begin to express myself.

English has become the lingua franca of the world. It is the official language of the European Union. Moreover, English is spoken by millions of people around the globe, but only about 20% of them speak it as their native language. Even though they may well get along in English at a certain level, they probably cannot express their deepest longings. Even though they may find themselves thinking in English when immersed in it, they probably still count and pray in their native tongue. They probably begin to think of what to say before they enter a store.

Because English is so wide-spread, many US Americans assume that it is not necessary for them to learn other languages. This is a very arrogant stance. As I have experienced when speaking languages other than my mother tongue, no matter how advanced I am in that language, I am still at a distinct disadvantage. So when we assume that we can use English wherever we go, we are putting at a distinct disadvantage those who do not speak English natively.

Indeed, some communication is better than no communication at all, but we need to be aware the dynamic we are setting up when we demand that the other person speak our mother tongue. The reason that English is so ubiquitous is because it was the language of empire builders. First the English and now the US American empire. So as a native speaker of English from one of these empires, not only do we put others at a disadvantage when assuming that English is the language of communication, we also reaffirm our power advantage and privilege. Even just a few words in their language helps level this power dynamic—how much more when we can put together complete sentences and paragraphs in the others’ language.

I am a polyglot. Like translating between Spanish and Swiss German, I love the challenge that communicating in languages other than my native language brings. However, I am still most comfortable speaking in my native tongue. Learning another language helped me to be more humble about the relationship between languages and the people speaking them. As we communicate with those who do not speak our language natively, we need to keep this in mind.


  1. Your experiences are very similar to other multilingual persons about whom I have read. I was interested to hear about the planning that you do before you engage in transactions in your other languages in public spaces. This kind of planning we would expect more from language learners than experienced language users. I don't recall doing that when I lived long term in Pakistan. I would, of course, engage in this practice if I were to go back now to a short visit, but the longer I stayed there, the less of this advanced planning I would do--except for meetings in which the stakes were higher and the discourse more challenging. Have you thought about why you engage in this practice?

    True though it is that English is now an international lingua franca because of its imperial past, I don't see much use in beating ourselves up over that as English speakers. The person who refuses to learn other languages ends up being the loser, in my opinion, more to be pitied than to be upbraided. And your final paragraph suggests that not only does this person lose the richness that the rest of us multilinguals get to experience by interacting with people in other languages; they may miss out on developing humility as part of their character. Second language learning is not essential for acquiring this virtue (it can be acquired in other ways), but it is one discipline that we can exercise to train ourselves in humility. I can also imagine multilinguals who are so good at using their additional languages that they become proud and maybe insensitive--just as we become in our native language.

    1. DrMedley,
      Thank you for your perspectives. A comment on the planning I do before entering a public space. It was to contrast the beginning of the paragraph where I speak to higher levels of language proficiency, i.e., unconsciously thinking in the other language. The contrast is once again to show humility, admitting that at times I am an elementary learner while other times I am well advanced. My humility also speaks to people whom I've had in my classes for a few semesters who claim that they "speak Spanish" or are "fluent" in Spanish.

      Regarding empire. The context for those comments comes from a delightful conversation I had in Switzerland with a group of five people. Two spoke Swiss natively, two spoke Spanish natively, and I was the only native English speaker. Somehow it was assumed that we would speak in English, even though we all had Spanish as a common language. Why was this so? I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the language of the current empire had to rule the day. I insisted that we use Spanish.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment on this post.