I am standing in a circle, being taught simple Portuguese lyrics. I only need to repeat the words – not necessarily grasp the language. As the words slip around inside my mouth and through my mind, I realize they are, well, slippery. It was quite an epiphany that’s hard to explain. I start to visualize my brain filling up with this and that. Language-wise, I came up with this.
I am an amateur of languages. A lover of languages. A dilettante perhaps. It is almost an addiction in which I cannot resist learning these marvelous forms of communication – all so beautiful and systematic. So far in my lifetime, I have dabbled in seven or eight or more languages. My brain is starting to overflow, struggle, drown. To compensate, things must be thrown overboard.
What is lost is vocabulary. Words start to cross over. It is likely that in any conversation not in English, my brain will rapidly begin thinking in Spanish or Mandarin (a fact supported by the large portions of my brain that I suspect these languages occupy). But it goes every which way as well. Frequently, I will halt the flow of a Spanish conversation because suddenly I’ve started to think in Mandarin. One memorable time when I didn’t know a word in Spanish, I replaced it with the corresponding word in Latin. Once, in Russian conversation, I completely blanked on the word for “where” and my brain started screaming “dónde!” And sometimes I write in other languages when taking notes because some languages have single words for English phrases.
What is lost is subtle grammatical nuances. Forms are mixed up. What is lost is cultural boundaries as I forget which culture values this over that. What is lost is fluency, confidence, and another language to call my own. I am this crazy mess of language, culture, ideas that makes me strictly a cliché melting pot – an American, if you wish. Yes, years of Spanish have drilled it into my head, and Mandarin and Taiwanese influences have been around my whole life. But I can’t relate to Latino history or Chinese pop stars. Nor do I know anything about Brazilian customs, let alone the Portuguese language! I had a good grasp of Roman culture, but it has been quickly disappearing in the four or five years since I last read a passage in Latin. And, to be honest, my experience with the Ancient Greek language was a few weeks of studying overwhelmed by listening to lots of bizarre Gregorian chants and watching the FIFA World Cup.
Let me leave no doubt: English is the only language in which I am fluent. I can read, write, speak, and confidently though off-tune-ly sing in English. Everything else is like a pile of colored sand on the beach. I can holding it for a while before some of it slips through my fingers and disappears into the ocean. My cultural identity is a little like that. I can pick up whatever the tides choose to wash up. But who knows when the shore will finally erode away?