new language, new identity crisis?

December 8th, 2005

Today's theorem: Taking a strong interest in a foreign language inevitably leads to an identity crisis

Well, I say that knowing that my understanding of the issue has been molded by circumstance rather significantly. I remember sitting in a car on a cold winter morning, I guess I was about 5 years old and my mom was teaching me the most basic Norwegian words because I was starting kindergarden that day. The first four years of my life I spoke Polish exclusively, this was going to be my first ever encounter with Norwegian. Having ridden that bilingual wave since that day, I realize that being introduced to a new language is void of much of the drama that comes with learning a new language for the first time.

But I see it in people now, that those who want to get into a new language. It's not just about the language, it's about wanting to know the country and the culture, maybe even some history. Because once you get deep enough into a language, you start asking yourself "could I go there, could I live there some day? I wonder if I could". It's a search of something new, something very exciting. The problem is that moving to another country is never exactly like you think it will be, in fact it's rarely much like you imagine at all. And so one gets disillusioned, disappointed, feeling lonely, feeling homesick. I call that Phase Two, because it's bound to happen. Then once you see that, you have to decide whether you want to keep pursuing that "dream" or just go home instead. The reason this happens is that while you explored this new country from home, watching tv, surfing the internet, reading books (there are all kinds of ways of doing it) or what have you, you started thinking that you're becoming a part of it. Or rather, a part of you is becoming it. And that's true, by going in that direction you absorb a lot of things you otherwise wouldn't have, you also forfeit certain things from your "home". This results in a split between the two places and depending on how long you are "gone", can put you in a place where you don't feel home in either of them. For immigrant kids, this is a well known and almost trivial phenomenon, because life was always like that and you deal with it as best you can, you don't dwell on it for 20 years. Ultimately, you have to adapt somewhere, either to the new place or the old one. Of course, there is a wealth of knowledge that comes from living through this, which I firmly believe people who haven't done are very oblivious to. The identity crisis is a powerful device toward appreciating home in the first place. And by appreciating I mean making peace with it, feeling at home.

For me, it has been a rich experience, after kindergarden and three years of primary school, I was fundamentally rooted in two languages, two cultures. That's when I started English at school. That 4th grade English was completely useless, but soon after, I started an English school (run by Australian immigrants to be precise), which again was a tall order because I basically knew no English. At the starting point, I was getting C's in English all the time (they generally didn't give lower marks), then I worked myself up to a B. After two years, I started junior high school and suddenly I was far more advanced in English than the Norwegian kids. A year later, I started French as a second foreign language (which, due to my useless work ethic, never amounted to anything despite 3 years of classes). Then came high school and the International Baccalaureate. I felt very comfortable having school in English again, it's almost like I wish I always had. In college it was back to Norwegian.

And so, 20 years on, English is what I consider my first language, Norwegian is a must, while my Polish has suffered as I've used it less and less gradually, to the point that someone remarked I speak it in an English accent (how weird is that?), I have a basic understanding of French, I recognize some Italian, even less Spanish and last week I even tried to make out Portuguese, did not succeed at it. In less than two months I'm moving to the Netherlands, where I'll be taking on yet another language (to what level of ambition I have not decided for the moment).

In that time, I have both loved and hated Poland and Norway, finally I made peace with both even though I still have plenty of gripes. I've been fascinated by France (and still am to some extent), strongly attracted to the US through what can only be described as cultural imperialism, had an Italian attraction (after 5 visits it seems I've satisfied my curiosity) and now I embark upon a move abroad with a sense of excitement, but without a grand expectation toward this being my "new country" and thus I don't imagine I should be terribly disappointed in the event I don't like what I see.

Identity crisis? Yes, I've had a handful so far, somehow things seem to have stabilized, but that may not last. What's weird is that I cannot imagine what it can be like for someone to live in their home country their whole life (or say for 20 years), without ever wanting to go or going anywhere that would shake that foundation of what it feels to be home.

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3 Responses to "new language, new identity crisis?"

  1. erik says:

    I've grown up with only one culture and language; Dutch. For 18 years I've lived in only the Netherlands, under the influence of its language and culture soley. The only knowledge I had of other languages I gained at school.

    Most of this time I spent learning new languages and getting acquinted with the cultures that go with it. As a result I started dreaming of places better than where I grew up (I'm from a poor family and with no other cultural backgrounds to compare with; I assumed every language and culture I learned about in school was automatically 'better')

    After numerous travels and two emigration periods; I've come to appreciate my heritage and background as well as understand it much, MUCH better.

    I think one has leave in order to be able to fully appreciate home

  2. ash says:

    Great post, I've always been more than a little curious as to how you learnt English so well - then again every continental European I meet seems to be brilliant at English, while my French is now almost completely forgotten.

    Like Erik, I've only lived in one place (unless you count the first year of my life which I can't remember), and I've only ever spoken English. Unlike Erik, I can't speak another language, so moving elsewhere would be a little more difficult for me.

    Despite this, I've travelled a lot from a fairly young age, and I'd definitely agree that it's helped me to appreciate home - and it hasn't made me hunger for a move just yet. At the same time I've got to experience a small amount of time in different countries and that's been good too.

    I definitely recognised your 'strong attraction' to the US through 'cultural imperialism' - over here it's probably more pronounced among people in general, what with the massive amount of crossover between the two countries (well, not quite crossover, more like one way traffic). Since I've been to the US more than a few times though, I've never really had quite the same desire to go there, and too much of the culture there seems completely alien to me, even off putting. Then again I've got an American girlfriend, so feel free to call me a hypocrite

    Lastly (don't worry, this 'comment' is going to end soon), I don't think I've had my idea of home shaken. The most conflict I've experienced is probably between my family home in Manchester where we've lived for maybe 18 years, and the flat here in London where I've been for just three. But that's probably not that the kind of foundation shaking you were talking about.
    As a second generation immigrant, there have been some thoughts on my sense of identity in the past, but I suppose I'm too English to consider myself anything else.

  3. numerodix says:

    Ash, if you want my opinion about how to learn a language, I only really believe in one thing: passion. If you go to a good school and you have a teacher who really inspires you, then that can put you at a position of great advantage over people who lack that, but ultimately the will to improve has to come from you alone and for some reason I always wanted to learn English and I tried in all kinds of practical ways. And mind you not in ways that my teachers told me to, like reading books, I was not so big on that. A language is so much bigger and more complex than you can learn in school anyway, it takes continuous effort spanning many years, which is something that comes entirely natural to me. Basically I sought all kinds of exposure and tried to get something from that, a crucial point was my interest in computers, where everything was (and I claim should remain) in English.