26 September 2008

Things I Lost and Am Finding Again: My Native Tongue

Preparing to come home from Russia, I was in a mood to focus largely on the things I was going to lose upon leaving. Unsurprising. But once I got here, I was taken by surprise in rediscovering things I had lost by leaving the U.S. and am now regaining.

I was afraid that coming back to the U.S. would mean losing my Russian self and everything I had gained while I was there, reverting to being the same person I was two years ago when I set off. That, of course, didn't happen; experience has left its mark on me, and being in the U.S. doesn't erase that. Instead, it lets me keep what I've found and pick up the pieces I shed when I left. There were aspects of my personality, it turns out, that really did get lost in Russia.

One of those aspects was language. In Russia, I began to lose hold of the ways I define myself through language. I'm not a particularly eloquent speaker, but I'm a linguistic creature nonetheless. I really enjoy playing with language, appropriating language, observing the way my lexicon and manner of speaking changes depending on who I'm talking to, crafting written sentences to convey what I mean in the loveliest way possible. Speaking Russian all the time and speaking English primarily to non-native speakers really ties your hands linguistically. My Russian is not as expressive or varied as my English, and my English-to-Russians is not as expressive or varied as my English-to-Americans. Of course, I had my (few) American friends and this blog, but I was still speaking "as myself" in English much, much less than I do every day here.

I bet that's one of the reasons Seth and I were good friends (or much better friends, anyway, than two such different people would likely have been if we had met in the U.S.); we could talk to each other in a way that we couldn't really talk to anyone else. Usually that phrase is code for "we could divulge all our secrets and hopes and fears to each other," but here I actually mean it literally. We could bring out our full lexicon, constructions, mannerisms, humor, intonation, slang, cultural references – in short, all the tools in our linguistic toolbelts - and know we were being understood.

(Seth and I had different approaches to how we used English with Russians; from what I saw of his interactions with them, he kept on using those tools even when he wasn't understood, while I used a kind of pruned-back, twiggy English, shorn of markers of my unique idiolect. I can't say which approach is better, really, although I'm inclined to say that I went too far.)

Anyway, I've been generally dazzled by how bright, deep and complex the linguistic milieu is in my native land. I get to use all the tools in my toolbelt all the time now, and (to mix metaphors) my serves are almost always returned. I now draw immense pleasure from things like writing academic papers and from the way conversation flows in a group of people. I miss speaking Russian - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot - but I'm pleasantly surprised by how much donning my native language makes me feel like I'm in my own skin again.


Seth said...

Umm, what about all those secrets, hopes and fears you divulged to me? (Examples: crush on cool dad, getting to mcbreakfast before 10 and spiders, respectively.) And what about all the anagrams I confided in you?

Ps. My linguistic toolbelt only has hammers. Yes, that is part of my next rap song. And yes, I do rhyme hammers with stammers and then Glamours (as in the plural form of the title of that magazine).

Leslie said...

Right, but my point is that Secret, Hope & Fear Street was one-way. You kept your true feelings closely veiled - for example, was your jealousy over my relationship with Inna real, or a ruse to distract my attention from your attraction to Alexei's red unibrow? I had as my only clue stolen glances I was never meant to see.

Speaking of Cool Dad - I need to call him. Maybe we can get together for a harmonica jam session, or just to eat dates and pistachios.

Glad/amused you're reading. :) I'll be looking for your rap on the Billboard chart soon.

Nana said...

At the end of my program in China, I rediscovered my sense of humor. Even though a lot of jokes translate - American humor and Chinese humor are very compatible - I wasn't quick enough to do it with good timing. Also, I love jokes that are dependent on precise execution of language for them to be funny. Between my poor Chinese and Chinese's smaller lexicon in general, that angle of humor basically disappeared.