Language,  Learn

Mother Tongue

Every now and then, I’ll run into some colleagues who speak Italian and who, in their inclusive nature, always treat me as another Italian. That red passport and a last name ending in a vowel is enough to be considered part of the group, even if I’m not really Italian.

These days, when I start to respond, I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and realize I’m not speaking Italian at all. I’m speaking Portuguese. Which is not the same, not by a long shot.

I grew up in an English-only home, but I was exposed to different languages early. In part through family (my great-grandparents sometimes spoke in dialect to me), through friends and their families, and through a supportive mother who enrolled me in French classes pretty early on in life. While I never had a bilingual experience in the way that many of my friends who spoke multiple languages at home had, I always had a deep curiosity and affinity for learning other languages.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a native or non-native speaker. Bilingual or multilingual or monolingual. The degrees of fluency, especially depending on the topics you’re talking about in a different language. Mixing languages, accents, and living day-to-day “in” another language. In part, it’s been on my mind as I work closely with a number of people who work predominantly in one or more non-native languages, but also, in part, because I’ve been examining my relationship to the languages I speak now that I’m back in the US, but, for the first time in my life, living in a multilingual home.

A language story

At home, both my partner and I prefer to communicate predominantly in English. This has been just as true in the US as it was when I was living in Brazil. We actually got a fair amount of flack from friends and family who thought that Gustavo speaking English with me at home was doing me a disservice in terms of integrating me into Brazilian life and culture. What they didn’t understand is that being able to speak my native language was part of creating my “safe space” at home. Not to mention the fact that, since we both worked it English for the entire day, it required a lot more intention to switch to Portuguese.

Now that we’re in the US, living in English, and working in English, the same set-up generally applies. But we switch back and forth sometimes. Every now and then something slips out in Portuguese or a word is forgotten because it is, after all, Gustavo’s native language – no mater how close to “native” he gets in English. (My favorite is when I wake him up from a dead sleep and his brain doesn’t have time to switch, so everything comes out in Portuguese, intentionally or not.)

Yet before learning Portuguese, I learned Italian in college, with a little time overseas. I also have dual citizenship in Italy, so speaking Italian is really important to me, both intellectually and as a way of connecting to my family history. While we never spoke Italian at home, there were always certain words or phrases that we never bothered to translate and that mean something very specific. And if you’re thinking of those random Jersey-Italian words they threw in on the Sopranos, well, yeah, it’s basically that because that show was annoyingly accurate from a cultural perspective.

Before that, my “first” second language was French. I started in school and developed a passion for it over the course of a decade. I moved to France for a short period of time with the optimism of a teenager desperate to be “somewhere else” and continued to study it in college. It’s still the language that I can switch to most seamlessly, in spite of almost never using it these days – likely because I started learning so young. (At least, that’s my theory.)


What’s got me thinking about this so much lately is the struggle I’ve been having with my Italian classes as I prep for a CILS exam (Certificazione di Italiano come Lingua Straniera) in June. When I listen to my teacher and classmates, I don’t actively translate what they’re saying with, what I would estimate, is about 95% comprehension. When I read, it’s the same experience. But when I speak, oh boy.

There’s research showing that for bilingual and multilingual people, the brain doesn’t “switch” languages like previously assumed. Instead, generally all language centers of the brain activate, to a certain degree, but one language is either facilitated or others are impaired. (It goes without saying that this is my highly unscientific TL;DR, by the way.)

Because I spent less time living “in” Italian than anywhere else, it’s the language I struggle with the most. I can switch from Portuguese to French and vice versa without any trouble. And, of course, from English to either, as well. Going from Portuguese to Italian has proven to feel nearly impossible, and it’s something I’m practicing intensely right now.

When I speak in Italian, I also don’t actively translate from English. That is, I don’t translate until I hit a wall. There’s this new and weird experience I’ve been having where I’m fluent all the way up until I forget a certain phrase, word, or expression. Then, it’s like flipping through a Rolodex. I reach for the words and find them in every other possibility than Italian. As my partner put it, it’s like my brain is having a “sorting error.”

Native vs. Non-native

What I’m learning is that my relationship to each of my languages is fluid. Being fluent isn’t a static state and speaking a language doesn’t happen in isolation. With research around multilingualism, it seems we’re finding that languages interact with and influence each other. In a way, then, perhaps it makes sense that me learning Portuguese knocked by Italian down a peg, but improved my Spanish.

It’s also been interesting for me to see how this shifts my identity. My relationship with Portuguese is immersive, whereas the other languages I speak are more intellectual or based on my curiosity. When I describe myself in Portuguese, I’m most likely to describe myself as a non-native, American first, with other descriptors after. (Interestingly, I never switch to describing myself as a “role,” like a daughter or partner or some other community-centric identity, which feels more native to Portuguese.)

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

In any other language, including English, my identity and experience in that language is much less related to a specific place. In other words, I lived longer in Brazil than anywhere else, so I’m more likely to see myself less as a non-native in general and more in terms of my position in life. Where I work. What I do for a hobby. How long I studied the language.

I know there are so many factors that go into how someone identifies themselves in different languages, ranging from fluency, cultural values, and other more technically linguistic traits. But it’s a significant difference, and one that’s constantly evolving. It’s not just speaking another language, but developing a whole other persona – the same, but not quite.

What will that mean over time? How will that change? Will it all coalesce at some point? (Or will I start to lose some of my knowledge in different languages, like dead leaves falling off a tree?) I’m really curious to see the evolution all along the way.

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