My entire adult life, English has been my working language. I was schooled in British English (I still say hoover, duvet and queue). During my job as development associate in Nepal my boss corrected my written reports according to her Canadian English. And for the past 16 years I've been immersed in the American English of the Bay Area. My published work still requires grammar cleanups and a keen eye to detect mistaken use of words like rump and romp. Even so, my command of English has become far stronger than that of my mother tongue, Danish.
During my annual home visits, I've taken pride in speaking Danish without a noticeable American accent, albeit sparse and by friends described as classic Danish - a polite way of saying I've lost touch with the ways the language has developed with slang, freedom of spelling (you may spell mayonnaise as you prefer, with j or y), and a lot of "Danified" English words.
And now, my lingual comfort zone has been provoked. Upon my recent return to my roots, my sense of identity and the way I express myself in the world, as English speaking, has become untethered, and I find myself mildly lost in the translation, unexpectedly hesitant to surrender myself to my mother tongue.
The majority of the time I still think and dream in English. 25% of my speaking vocabulary is English words, simply because I have no patience to search my brain and memory for the correct Danish Word. I often rely on my mother to correct me when I use the wrong word and help me out, when I pause, seeking the right word.
During a discussion of my upcoming book, Unveiled, with a Danish publisher, he suggested my language was American, full of bow ties. What do you mean? Bow ties? Only a Dane would use such a metaphor. He explained: American is more flowery, decorative, you use grandiose words like soul and beauty, which to Danes seem cliche and intangible. We prefer it more concrete, he said.
Recently, I looked for the Danish word for otherworldly' and 'out of touch' and 'ungrounded' came up. Otherworldly to me signifies the mysterious, the magical, the unexpected, the duende, the soul, the poetry of life and experience. Deeply, in touch, in my universe.
A little part of me died. Would I ever find my way with the Danish down-to-earthness?
Perhaps the exercise of getting more concrete will help me flush the extraneous floral swung of my American tongue, and enable me to make myself more clear, at least to my Danish cohorts. But, what if, I feel more at home in the lyrical well of words available to my American self?
Language, like place, like people, influence us, how we feel, how we express ourselves.
I heard Jhumpa Lahiri say: 'I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer', and it makes me reflect upon who we become in the various translations.
Since I at sixteen moved to London, I've traveled the world and lived and worked in Europe, Asia and USA. The incessant moving back and forth between cultures and languages have not only forced me to shift perspective and vantage points regularly, it has also forced me to drop any inherent superiority of norms, ideas and beliefs about myself, others and our world. Language is the entry point by which we give and make meaning, and try to understand one another. From language we derive a sense of identity.
But even so, words often fail. Gestures, tonality, facial expressions and the subtleties behind each word can be very hard to decipher when we deal in foreign languages. And yet, for me, its a wonderful terrain of exploration and learning, it requires all of my faculties and imagination to feel my way into another culture. I love discovering the layered meanings, intricate links to times past, and the way people of other cultures string reality together.
In Nepalese language I laughed a lot, and got away with a lot of mistakes. I felt fun and friendly, humble and bold in Nepalese. Learning the language helped me solidify the soulful connection I immediately felt when I first set foot on Himalayan ground. The connection was beyond language, though the language opened doors to their world.
In the USA, English became the main language in which I lived day to day and navigated everything from small talk to business deals and creative expression to arguments and love making and dreaming.
When I write, I write in musical beat, I feel the words, I taste them and they move me. Writing becomes a visceral experience, I become the words, and they have become part of me.
Currently, I oscillate back and forth between my languages, between loss and gain, and it feels like both the architecture of my brain and my loyalties have to stretch.
To dress myself in Danish again, to embody the words I've taken for granted all my life, words that swim in my DNA and deepest memories, I wonder who I will become. Where will the language take me. What will my Danish self express? Or perhaps, I will find unexpected freedom in my linguistic amalgamation, and make a language all of my own.
What is your experience with living and writing in different languages?
(the story was written for the She Writes "Behind the Book" Series, June 2016)