How Language Helps us Connect with our Inner Belonging

18/10/2014

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Yesterday as I was driving my daughter to ballet, I put on some Francis Cabrel, which I hadn’t heard in a while. The lyrics in French, the inflection, the flow of the phrases and the cadence of the words wove through me, lifting me up out of the car of suburbia and away from tantrum child.

Charlemagne said ”to have a second language is to have a second soul” and this French moment was an acute reminder of how language can channel us to inner belonging amid external chaos. How language, like fragrance, can take us back to the exquisite emotion of fullness contained in a specific moment.  How the sounds of certain words can change the geography in our minds. How one word in a particular language can describe something that other languages cannot.

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I can’t remember what it’s like to speak only one language. In fact, I want to learn more languages because each one adds a new layer, a new dimension. Languages not only teach us to see the world differently but because they are structured in various ways, they actually shape our thoughts and perceptions.

In Indonesian the verb alone does not mark tense. You need to insert another word to indicate whether the action happened in the past or will happen in the future. In Turkish you need to include how you acquired the information in the verb:  the form of the verb changes depending on whether you saw the action or read about it.

English speakers organise time — and many other things in our practical lives — from left to right.  Hebrew speakers arrange time from right to left. In Mandarin the past can be above and the future below while in Aymara, a language in South America, the past is in front and the future behind.

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Indeed having another language not only gives us a second soul and an inner belonging  but it opens up connections.

So when I asked trilingual poet Merlinda Bobis at the Sydney Writers’ Festival  how much language affects her sense of belonging I could relate to her eloquent answer. Bobis, who was raised in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, is also a performing artist whose voice transcends the limitations of words.

”It’s where my body goes.  I feel that when I speak and write in my original tongue my body changes, everything changes, it’s sensory, even my posture changes and I feel that its still nice to go back to that.

”For all my books in English my body decides in my first heart. Many of us can relate to that because there are many sensations, many feelings that can never be translated to that second language.”

(Merlinda Bobis’s latest novel is Fish-Hair Woman, Spinifex Press and Anvil Publishing)

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