Language & Identity – Embracing the different “selves”

(This Article is originally published on Medium.)

As my fellow birdy, Medea, mentioned in her article, the language you speak shapes your perception of the reality around you. And as you learn and speak different languages, you will develop different versions of yourself.
In this article, I want to share my experience related to this.

I was not born multilingual. So here I want to share my insight into how learning and speaking English as a second language impacted my identity.

Detachment from the native culture

Since a child, I have been keen on learning English as I was fascinated by the different speaking manner from Japanese.
“I think…”, “I like….”, “I want…”, there is always the sense of “’ I’ versus the world” in English conversations. It is also common to ask each other “How about you?” or “What do you think?”. It sounds nothing special, but it was interesting point when comparing with my mother tongue. In Japanese conversations, individual “I” or “You” are not always emphasized, and these pronouns are often omitted from the phrases.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Not sure if this is the best example, but I can put it like this;
In English, we say, “I like your hair (or something)!”. Instead, in Japanese, we often say “That is Kawaii (cute)!” to mean the same. The word Kawaii is a kind of an aesthetic standard in our culture. The former we express a compliment to someone by how a person likes it or not. On the other hand, the latter applies some formulas which are widely accepted as positive comments. Even from this little example, I see how individual preferences and expressing them matters in English speaking culture. So, as I learned English, I learned to be more specific about my preferences and to express them. It even seemed to me that the more you say something different from the others, the more you are praised in English lessons.

Then, I came to have a second look at how my native culture raised me. In Japan, we are often educated not to stick out from the crowd. Mothers often tell children “Don’t do that because it will annoy others.”. If you stand out in the classroom, even in a cool way, you will receive more humiliation than admiration. I am not an expert on Japonism, but I guess such tendencies came from that Japanese education emphasizes harmony with others. And I was not welcome to give a particular opinion that deviates from the purpose of the class or group. It could be boring if you have something unique in your minds. So, speaking in English was a good dissipation for me at that time, as it enabled me to express my singularity and brought me a sense of freedom and independence.

…And a look back at what I am

The “honeymoon” for me and English continued for a while. I enjoyed travelling and talking with people around the world, I moved to Edinburgh and entered the university there, and started to live a life in English (and Scottish!) speaking environment.
But, after I got used to it, I came to feel something empty in daily conversations. I noticed that I was embodying a different personality from what I originally am. I always tried to sound positive, confident, or assertive even when I was not. It was partly because the classroom atmosphere in the university was a little competitive, and I tried to keep up with it. But I also noticed that I was not used to talking about something sensitive or vulnerable in English. I spoke in English just to express opinions, discuss, or to socialize, and not to communicate something deeper. Maybe some of my subtle feelings just could not be translated into English. If someone asked me “How are you?”, I always responded, “I am good.” Because I knew that even if I said, “I feel lonely.”, I would not be able to explain why.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Then, I looked into what I was missing to express. It was the struggles of fitting into Western culture, sentimental feelings when I realized how far away I got from home, an ironic insight about Asian stereotype, or some childish humour that I could only share with old friends. So to speak, these things constituted what I have been until I made it to Edinburgh. I needed some acknowledgment about my history, my struggles, and tries before I got to live in another country with another language. Some of them could be expressed well only in Japanese. And I realized that the mother tongue, which I once got bored of, is still something vital to myself. I even came to appreciate the non-insisting way of Japanese expressions as I can be more humble and compassionate to others.

Now, I enjoy a fusion of different versions of myself in each language. I do not feel I completely belong to any one of them. It’s more like I am always somewhere in the middle. I make jokes, express the emotions and compassion in both languages, with a mixed perspective of both cultures.

It is like collecting your elements

As you explore different languages and cultures, you will no longer rely on only one of them. You will free yourself from the old contexts you had been living in and you will change into what you will become. By expressing yourself in one language from another, you will discover how different you can sound, and you will get to play with how you want to sound.

So, I strongly invite you to try this experiment!

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