Where My Languages Sit

“I was asked by a Norwegian national (an amazing woman who is a fluent Welsh speaker and recent learner of Sami, the language of her father’s inuit tribe) ‘Where in your body do your languages sit?’ She told me stories of elderly Welsh people who would make a gesture of a cupped and strangling hand over their mouth when asked where their Welsh was, representing the years of oppression of their native language. We agreed that English lived in the front of our heads. I always found it puzzling that it was so hard for me to express myself with a proper English grammar – the words and the ideas come easily, but the structure remains a mystery to me. Writing in English is a constant act of translation. With sadness, I recounted to her that my Scots is in the back and base of my spine. It’s deep within me at the core of my being and my memories, but it’s so long since I’ve had people to speak it with me on a day-to-day basis it’s become neglected, and to speak it I have to concentrate to free my memory and my muscles and channel it to my mouth. I have the best success at this when I’m emotional, drunk, or giddy with the flytin and the banterin o a faimly gaithrin.”

-Laura Cameron Lewis, “Ootland”

Like Laura Cameron Lewis, English sits in the center of my forehead. Where we differ in this is the purpose of it’s place there. Hers sits in her forehead because she must constantly translate it, but my English is placed like a third eye. It comes fluently to my tongue without conscious thought. It’s the language of open doors, of privilege, of being white, cis/het-passing, and American.

Spanish lives in my heart. To me, it is the language of lost love and infinitely sad songs. It draws up images of European conquest, indigenous cultures giving up their mother tongues, and weary travelers in the desert moonlight. I struggle with the finer points of grammar and with specialized vocabulary, though sometimes my dreams are in Spanish. I feel proud of the fluency I’ve achieved in Spanish; I do occasionally manage complex grammar, usually when I’m shouting angrily at an ex. What is it about strong emotions that make my Spanish come through so clearly? I think that it’s a state-induced learning thing- I learned Spanish with emotions running high, so when I’m angry or sad or joyful the Spanish comes to mind more easily.

American Sign Language sits (terribly obviously, I’m afraid) in my hands. I have to work at remembering the vocabulary and forming coherent sentences. It represents a great deal to me academically, as so many experiments I’ve formed in my head involve bimodal bilingualism (using a spoken and sign language from an early age) or cognitive benefits for late learners of ASL. I’ve watched so many ASL videos slack-jawed, doing my best to absorb the fascinating visual poetry in the fleeting hand movements. It conjures up memories of sore fingers and knuckles from practicing finger-spelling, teaching my co-workers my favorite signs (HANDSOME), and volunteering to sit in the next semester’s class as a teaching assistant twice because I had so much fun the first time. My pre-verbal daughter used baby sign to communicate her needs with me, signing “milk” and “change diaper” and “want orange juice!”. Now she demands “Use hands, Mama!” when we sing the ABC’s; she tries to sign along and does pretty well, though she’s stopped signing herself except when prompted.

German sits in the soles of my feet. I know so little of it that it barely counts as one of my languages, but it’s at the top of my list of languages to learn. My grandmother’s family immigrated from Stuttgart in the mid-1800s. Small pieces of vocab from childhood flit back to me, taught by my father who took two years of German in high school. I think I say “danke shön” more often than I say “gracias” or even “thank you”. It’s the language of my roots, hidden underground but still there keeping me tied to my family and to my heritage.

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