At a Meetup group I organize we were discussing the role language plays in our conception of the world. I brought up the idea of code switching. Code switching is a fancy term for when one person, often in the same conversation, will switch dialects or even languages if they are bilingual. Easy examples include a black person who speaks "white" around his white friends and "black" around his black friends. On a simpler level, think about how each field, discipline, profession, or even hobby has its own jargon that oftentimes is unintelligible to the outsider, even though the jargon is technically in the same language. On a plane once, I sat next to a Latina, raised in the U.S., who while on the phone spoke half of a sentence in Spanish and completed it in English. As a language aficionado myself, there's something about this ability to code switch between languages with such ease, and even in the same sentence, the way this Latina did, that I find irrepressibly fascinating. It took me thinking about it for a while before I understood why.
The ability to code switch shows the speaker is comfortable moving between both, or multiple, aspects of their identity. The Latina on the plane felt comfortable enough swimming in the murky waters between the concepts of Immigrant Hispanic/English-speaking American to display both aspects of her identity in a public setting. An immigrant, or the child of immigrants, who was ashamed of their heritage wouldn't let themselves use the language unless they had to. How many Southerners, afraid of seeming "slow", suppress their Southern accent when they travel? In a situation where a code (language, dialect, etc.) becomes a source of shame, embarrassment, or anxiety the pressure is on the speaker to suppress that code if they have a more accepted alternative to use instead. Even more generally, we tend to become attached to a certain conception of ourselves, a strict and narrow sense of Identity (capitalization intended). To preserve that ego-driven Identity, we suppress the other parts of us that contradict it. Language or dialect is certainly no exception to this, considering that language is the very medium through which we form our sense of self.
But here's the rub. No one has a static, single Identity. Our consciousness (or the illusion of it, depending on who you ask) is a conglomerate of dozens or more fragmented identities that sometimes collaborate and sometimes compete. Brother, son, entrepreneur, engineer, American, Southern, Cosmopolitan. The only thing that stitches them together (sometimes precariously) is the inventive narrative we tell ourselves, with I as the protagonist. The ability language gives us to say I allows us to fabricate the illusion of a single Identity. But, as Whitman put it, "I am large. I contain multitudes." If we recognize the complex, ambiguous nature of our Identity, and are grounded enough in our sense of self and have a sense of the nuances of our own psyche, we can thrive in the vastness of it. When we accept the multitudes within us, we can better integrate them and weave them together. We become more magnetic because we have more poles. Our ego attachment on one single identity fragment has loosened, and no longer constrains us, so we become larger, more liberal, in the original sense of freeing or being freed. More chaotic, but with an order in the chaos. And, like the Latina, we become able to switch dialects or languages mid-sentence when the situation calls for it- which is one sign of exactly such an integrated personality.
So code switching ably means being comfortable with another identity. To me, this explains why so many people have problems learning another language fluently- and I am speaking here about trying to learn to native or near-native fluency, not merely making yourself understood to order food or find your hotel in another country. Ultimately, learning another language well is a process of self-reinvention and of developing a new identity in another language. Even on a basic level, learning a language to a near-native fluency (henceforth just "fluency") means you have to absorb a great deal of the culture of those who speak the language natively. Language and culture are closely intertwined, because what two speakers of the same language talk about, the content of the language, is culture. It's what they think about, care about, complain about, the values they base their decisions on, their ideals, their thought processes. And to become fluent, the learner has to be exposed to a lot of native level content, whether from media or from flesh-and-blood interactions. And some theories of linguistics even assert that the structure and vocabulary of a language creates a unique worldview and perspective of events- Germans, Japanese, and Americans all see the world differently, and thus interact with it differently, because we have different ways of thinking about it and communicating it. It is like we're running different operating systems. So many people cannot learn another language because they are not willing to loosen their ego attachment to the identity they have of themselves as a speaker of their native language and a member of their native culture. Before they can fill their cup with something new, it must first be emptied.
To continue the operating system metaphor, just like a die-hard Apple fan would never dream of running Windows, an ego-attached language learner will never let themselves learn another language to fluency because their identity is too tied up in the use of their native language and its associated culture. But it obviously is possible to have a larger, more expansive identity spanning multiple languages, as I saw with the Latina on the plane. Another example. An Irish fellow with the self-styled moniker Benny the Polyglot runs a website called Fluent in Three Months- with the goal of being conversationally fluent in three months, a very achievable goal. Near-native fluency, under the right circumstances, can be achieved in about a year and a half, if not sooner. Anyway, in one article, Benny mentions how hard it was to be able to practice Arabic in Egypt. Every time he interacted with an Egyptian, they knew he was foreign and tried to speak to him in English. Frustrated, Benny finally devised a course of action. He sat down with a notebook and pen and just watched how Egyptian men acted, dressed, gesticulated, spoke, inflected. And he mimicked them as much as possible. He ditched his hat and let his beard grow out a bit, for example. He matched their body language and hand gestures. He began inflecting his voice like them.
Suddenly, the Egyptians stopped responding in English- and Benny began having conversations in Arabic. In short, he was willing to suspend what other people might describe as his essential Benny-ness in order to develop a new identity fragment, an Arabic-speaking Egyptian identity. But first, the old identity fragment had to be (temporarily, at least) renounced. If we are, as Socrates said, what we repeatedly do, then we have to act Egyptian before we can become Egyptian (or assume any identity, really). And learning Egyptian Arabic fluently means becoming Egyptian. Being born in Egypt to Egyptian parents makes you legally an Egyptian, sure. But culturally, Egyptians are Egyptians because they are steeped in Egyptian culture via the Arabic language- in conversations, print, television, radio, music, movies- every day of their lives. They are what they repeatedly do- Arabic speaking Egyptians. You can't have one without the other, an Egyptian without the Arabic or the Arabic without an Arabic speaking culture. A language without context is dead- as with Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanscrit, even Esperanto. Once the native identity is renounced, a new one can be formed- through sustained, repeated action.
Yet we can't forget the last part of the Hero's journey- which really is just a metaphor for personal rebirth and reinvention- coming home. Bringing the Great Boon back to society and reintegrating. In this case, reintegrating our new language and its associated identity into our greater Identity. In the reintegration, we become expansive, we become the multitude that Whitman referenced. I saw this when I was learning Spanish during my year studying abroad in Valencia, Spain. I made it my goal to do everything I could to become fluent in the language. Putting aside my English-speaking identity, I went out of my way to avoid other English-speakers, English language media, and the English language in general. I avoided situations where I would have to code switch into English, even speaking Spanish when another foreign student didn't speak it well. I went overboard with it, without a doubt. When I met other exchange students who didn't speak Spanish well, I avoided them and missed out on making friends. I became frustrated when my progress stagnated towards the middle of the year. I had trouble breaking into the social circles of the native Valencians. But towards the end of my year there, I felt validated in my efforts when a Galician mistook me for a Catalan. Yet I still had to come back to Oklahoma to finish my last year of undergrad.
Coming home after a year abroad is always hard. It was a fun year. I was torn: I was ready to come back, but I felt like a stranger, a foreigner. At least at first. After a couple weeks, life in the U.S. no longer felt weird. I still couldn't code switch. I was in a surreal state where, after a year without practice, my English was garbage and I couldn't really call upon my Spanish, either. I was "home" but not yet integrated. And I'm not sure exactly when that did happen. But I do have a distinct memory of when I code-switched between Spanish and English for the first time after returning to the U.S., perhaps proof that at some point, I'd reintegrated my disparate fragments. I went with friends to a student conference in Miami. When we got to the city, we went to a Tapas bar owned and staffed by Cubans. Already inebriated, I code-switched between Spanish with the staff and English with my friends, having a great time. It felt normal, natural. It felt like part of who I was.
On the way out, one of the waiters asked me, in Spanish, "Buddy, tell me. How did you learn English so well? I just got here from Cuba and really need to learn!"
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much