I recently read an interview in which Spanish actor Javier Bardem discussed the difficulty of expressing himself on screen in his second language English. He likened it to someone running around an office desperately asking for vital files thrown at him in haste by co-workers.
He noted that when you speak in your first language, words have an emotional resonance in you since you are speaking out of a need to express yourself, so it comes easily. I liked the office analogy a lot.
The idea of your brain desperately and frantically searching for information it is not sure it has with the aim of helping you express yourself, was an intriguing one.
It is something I sympathise with. I once had an assignment to translate something from English to Kinyarwanda. Had the translation been the other way round, I would have had little trouble.
Although my Kinyarwanda needs a lot of work, I have a decent enough grasp to know what was going on. However having to write things in Kinyarwanda suddenly presented a mental block that was difficult to lift.
Words took on a strange fuzziness and it was hard to see through the linguistic fog. However, it was a great way to shake me out of my language comfort zone.
And even with language on your side, the art of communication can meet some unexpected roadblocks. Occasionally- for no apparent reason- I develop a slight stutter when speaking.
Having the words at the tip of your tongue but being powerless to express them is an extremely disorienting thing. Those who have watched the movie The King’s speech know how maddening that can be.
A linguistic no-man’s land is not a place you want to visit, even briefly.
But I like the fact that the languages you learn- despite varying competencies-complement each other.
In a strange way, they work hand in hand to give you a better view of the world and can help you fill mental gaps you didn’t know you had. The idea of expressing yourself in multiple ways-even if some of those lack fluency- is a thrilling one.
Even imperfect language is a window into knowledge and perception. I once had a dream in which all the characters-including me- spoke only French. Even though in that dream, I was twisting and turning while searching for the right expression, I was extremely pleased that I had crossed this linguistic Rubicon.
And I think learning- and trying to express yourself- in other languages makes you value language more. Communication is no longer taken for granted, and your brain has to strain and work hard to create a coherent framework for it.
Furthermore, one can see things differently when the idea is moulded in a different language from one that the speaker is used to. I remember explaining to someone that the French word for ‘I miss you’ once translated to English became ‘You are missing from me.’ They thought that was fascinating, but it was an idea that wasn’t clearly reflected in the English expression.
Philosophers like Wittgenstein understood how important language was in the general scheme of things. Language is something we should always treasure.