You probably recognize the questions you get when you mention that you are bilingual or when you say you speak a third or fourth language: “Please say something in [language X]”, “How come you learned [language X]?”, “How fluent are you in [language X]”? When you are bilingual (for various reasons) you might get asked the same questions many times and it can either annoy you, or inspire you to write a poem about it and perform it.
Especially the question about fluency inspired Melissa Lozada-Oliva, living in Boston, to write about her background story of knowing Spanish. She put into metaphors her emotional response to the questions concerning her fluency. She speaks about it as if Spanish was a possession, but at the same time describes the language as if it were a family member with a rounded character with its own history of ongoing and developing relationships with other people.
Here are some quotes from the poem, which she passionately performs:
“If you ask me if I’m fluent in Spanish I will tell you that my Spanish is an itchy phantom limb. It is reaching for words and only finding air. (…) My Spanish is so hungry, my Spanish reaches for the top of the shelf with no stepping stool, is hit in the head with all of the words that I’ve been hiding up there. My Spanish wonders if it is bad to eat something that’s expired. My Spanish wonders if it has an expiration date.”
Grasping for words in one´s memory is often compared to reaching for something on a high shelf, where the languages should be stored nicely with the words and grammatical rules clearly separated. In practice, however, one usually mixes words, or forgets them when one needs them. The part of “eating something that is expired” or wondering if it is expired itself, reminds me of the insecurity one has about (using) outdated words, or using words in a context that might not fit the domain, time or discourse for 100%.
“My Spanish is a puzzle, left in the rain, too soggy to make its parts fit together to just look like the picture on the box.”
This can be a reference to both neglecting a language (not practising it enough) and to the standardization of a particular language use.
“My Spanish is a true story of my parents’ divorce – chaotic, broken – something I have to choose to remember correctly. (…) My Spanish is asking me if my parents are American. Asking me if I am white …yet.”
This poem shows that you never know what meaning another language has to an individual. The concept and definition of “fluency” can carry an even more complex background story with it, and cannot briefly be explained when facing the curiosity of others when they simply ask: “So… are you fluent?”
Because every linguistic fluency has its own subjective history.
Written by Eveline van Dijk
Study visitor at TermCoord