Forging a sense of self through language

Article published on April 10, 2014
Article published on April 10, 2014

When I packed a suitcase and set out for Madrid, it was with trepidation. Having not spoken Spanish for several years, I knew that communication and language for me was to change beyond my control. Language, of course, plays a significant role in shaping identity, and so it was that the figure of myself: someone I had gradually become to know and love, was to alter and distort before my very eyes.

Searching the dusty corners of my memory for the Spanish I could remember, I returned with two common and fairly useful verbs. 'Tengo que' (I have to) and 'puedo' (I can). It was to be these two pillars of dialogue that I would base my speech upon; the eggs to my omelette of expression if you will. What followed was almost an art form in the construction of sentences that somehow included them. If I wanted a drink, 'I can take a drink?; if I wanted to ask someone whether they wanted to visit an exhibition 'I can go and see the exhibition with you?' Forming was a figure seemingly low on self-confidence, frequently needing external reassurance that his actions were acceptable. The sympathetic expression I received was befitting toward a man enduring a personal crisis.

Two differing identities

On the other hand, if I was talking about a future action, it would always be an action I  had to do. This weekend? Oh 'I have to play tennis'. And after that? 'I have to go for drinks with a friend'. I saw in their faces thinly veiled concern. Who was making this poor English man do all these things? Couldn't he just choose his actions without an ambiguous threat hanging above him in this oppressive timetable of compulsion?  I glimpsed my own reflection and felt sad at the sight of a crumbling character who now occupied two differing identities dependent on which verb felt appropriate. Neither character particularly appealed to me.

I needed change, and idioms appeared to me the answer. Any English teacher will tell you that the greatest joy is when one of your students uses a phrase such as 'off my nut' or 'it hit the spot' without encouragement. Maybe my colleagues and friends would be equally delighted by my own turn of phrase. I learnt three that I thought could be easily recycled.

  • 'como perro en bario ajeno' (like a dog in a distant neighbourhood)
  • 'sobrio como una cuba' (as sober as a wine casket)
  • 'armarse la gorda'( to cause a ruckus).

 I believed the beauty of these three was that if it had been an eventful night, I could drop all three into conversation in a dazzling display of colloquialism. I began, at first, to drop them subtly into conversation and often received a puzzled expression in return. This, I put down to my strong accent; maybe they weren't hearing it properly. Before long, in almost every conversation I would crowbar in a phrase or two. Whilst my companion spoke, my mind would be frantically working out a response that somehow included being drunk or causing a ruckus. Unbeknown to me, I was fulfilling that very English stereotype- The Football Hooligan. And what's worse, it was later revealed that these idioms weren't even Spanish: they were South American. Despite the best intentions, here I was, in a tumultuous cycle, forever bragging about my drinking and fighting without even the caveat that they were widely known idioms. Solitude continued. 

For a while I crawled back into my shell as I tried to banish these negative personas. Whilst quietness is often linked to shyness, I instead saw this as an opportunity.  In English, the words often tumble and fall out of my mouth, as if fuelled by a desperate eagerness to leave my clutches and gain liberation and reception in the world outside. My tongue holds its own autonomy. In Spanish, however, I was able to take a step back and reassess my approach. Before a man of many, wasted words, now I resolved to be a man of few, wise words. The turning point came, as they so often do, at the work Christmas do.

At a restaurant during the meal, I was called upon for a few words. Several beers deep, I stood up, tipsy and anxious in front of a native crowd of colleagues. Not quite baying, but expectant at the very least.  But rather than witter on as I might do in English, I breathed deeply and gave each utterance due attention.

 'I feel good. The food is hot and the beers are free. Let's celebrate!'

 An admittedly short speech but one that met with a warm reception. I took my seat and reached an undeniable conclusion. Simplicity would be my saviour tonight.

Language, like a limbo pole at a party

And thus began the creation of a self I can abide. A combination of carefully chosen words, longer than usual pauses and meaningful, wistful looks. Philosophical and pensive: a man who says what he means and means what he says.  Often, I don't even need to complete sentences. I can happily begin a sentence conveying my feelings towards something, and just when it comes to the climax, I visibly begin searching for the appropriate word. A concentrated face portrays a man clearly  sieving through a myriad of vocabulary. Before the wait becomes awkward, my friend finishes the sentence with a  word I often don't know, and an enthusiastic look in their eye. 'Exactly!' I proclaim. Two souls on a wavelength of understanding.

If language is a barrier, it stands there like a limbo pole at a party. Difficult and a challenge, with the distinct possibility of looking like a flustered fool. Yet you can use your agility to avoid it. My language shapes and bends just as your body might below that low pole. Nobody is chanting 'How low can you go' and, normally, nobody is cheering at the end of the sentence. What connects the two is a satisfaction in adaptation. My Spanish self might not be particularly recognisable to this English one- but avoiding a semantic suicide and recreating a persona is surely a necessesity in the assimilation process.