I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. (…) Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.
— W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence
I recently read an article in The New Yorker by Yiyun Li about her experience of “[c]hoosing to renounce a mother tongue”. In it, she addresses concerns about her decision to write in English rather than her native language, Chinese. While reading, it became clear to me pretty quickly that she holds her mother tongue in much higher regard than I hold mine, but I saw a fair amount of common ground nonetheless. To illustrate her conundrum, she draws from various canonical authors of English, some with foreign-language backgrounds like Nabokov, quoted as saying,
My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom.
Li describes her own linguistic transition more drastically, as “a kind of suicide” even. I think a lot of that has to do with her being a published writer, whose private griefs are often co-opted by the public to craft some immigrant narrative. That’s probably why her mourning doesn’t resound very much with people like me, who are glad to rid themselves of their native language once in a while. When I was attending a language school in Toronto and living day-to-day life in English, it didn’t bother me in the slightest that I had started to think in English, dream in English, even do my OCD counts in English. On the contrary — I felt as though I had made an important step toward a linguistic emancipation.
Sure, I still feel a genuine appreciation for German whenever I read Stefan Zweig’s and Kafka’s stories in the original or watch videos celebrating the wealth of our vocabulary. But there’s also that nagging feeling in my chest every time I read creative writing of my own in German that this is not my natural idiom, however many senses of the word “natural” contradict that very idea. I’m convinced that English enables me to express myself more accurately, to be funnier in conversation, to empathize with people better, in short: to arrive in my due place. I am living proof that abandoning your mother tongue doesn’t necessarily come with a sense of Entfremdung, estrangement. It can open up a retreat of sorts. And there’s nothing fake or pretentious about your familiarity with that place. It means you’ve been offered an opportunity to escape certain parts of you, to alienate that which refuses to be alien. Li writes,
[T]his violent desire to erase a life in a native language is only wishful thinking. One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.
Fair enough, my revisionist fantasies might have something idealistic about them, but even if I try not to dwell on them, I still find myself mentally thriving on speaking English, all ulterior motives aside. What strikes me about this is that in any Anglophone context I also become much more comfortable with my position as a bilingual. I will conduct comparative analyses of English versus German on the spur of the moment and revel in my role as a cultural mediator, no matter how much of a smartass that makes me.
I wonder whether that joy will ever subside and, in the event that I do end up living in an English-speaking country someday, make way for the second thoughts Yiyun Li expresses when she talks about her memories of China being invaded by English dialogue. What she and I share for the present moment is that we can reap the rewards of having found a “private language”:
I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word. I have no doubt — can this be an illusion? — that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.
There’s a thought experiment by Ludwig Wittgenstein dealing with the idea of a private language in a literal sense, a language whose words can perfectly denote a person’s innermost feelings. (The word “thought experiment”, FYI, is a loan translation from German.) Naturally, such private words are left without definitions because to define them would make them publicly accessible and hence subject to corruption. The conclusion Wittgenstein reaches on this issue is that such a language winds up being altogether meaningless, since not even its owner can anchor its semantics to anything intelligible. My takeaway is that language, however personal it may seem, is a communal beast.
I’ve said this before, but we, the linguistically exiled, benefit greatly from that community. When I skim posts from my first blog (which I launched in 2014 having embarked on my Canadian journey and privatized in early 2016) I usually go, “This guy knows words, but he sure as hell doesn’t know how to write.” One day, I might even find myself dusting off WordPress thinking the same thing. But I doubt it. I have found my natural idiom, the closest I’ll ever get to a private language, and although it’s going to take some more polishing, I can now finally make out my reflection on its surface.