Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Czech proverb says ‘Learn a new language, and get a new soul.’ Similarly, a Persian proverb says, ‘A new language is a new life.’ I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always been crazy about languages and used to count the days to get to 9th grade because that was when foreign language learning was required. I chose Spanish and went on to later major in Spanish Language and Literature, study in Spain, and spend the last two years of college adding Italian and German classes. After spending time in Italy and Germany honing my skills, I realized the place where I’m happiest is in the language classroom, so I became a language teacher and will continue to be a lifelong language student myself. I’ve since added Portuguese, Greek, and Croatian to my list. 

But language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. Or the IELTS or TOEFL exam, which many of my students consider to be the ‘end’ of language. (Cringe) Within language lies a world of culture, beliefs, behaviors, and understanding of a society. Which is also why I get a little annoyed when people try to bargain down my prices here- don’t they realize we’re talking about a new life! And while we’re on the subject, imagine how many cool people there are in this world who we won’t ever know for no other reason than a language barrier! A case in point is one of my best friends. I’m so thankful he speaks English because I don’t speak his language, and I don’t want to picture life without his friendship.

But I digress.

Everyone’s heard the idea that your personality changes depending on the language you speak, and I felt this most strongly when I spoke Spanish. I felt freer, more outgoing and light-hearted. German made me more assertive and logical, and Italian made me carefree and appreciative of life’s simple pleasures. There’s another thought to this theory, though, that it’s not so much the language as it is the culture you are in. This rings a little more true in my opinion. Speaking Spanish, German, or Italian in the US was nowhere near the same for me as speaking them in their respective countries. It was definitely being immersed in that culture that made the difference. 

But as much as I felt those languages gave me another persona (at least abroad), I never felt that with Persian. I always thought it was a part of me, just like English, and I considered myself completely bilingual. It was only once I started studying all this language theory in grad school and later teaching that my perspective changed. Some claimed you could only be completely and fully versed in one language, which made me reconsider my beliefs. When I count, I count in English. For me it was a telltale sign that English was my native language. And the simple fact that I was never educated in Iran and don’t feel confident writing anything other than a text message in Persian was another. To be fully bilingual means to be fully communicative in every skill.

Growing up my only exposure to Persian, really, was talking to my parents, a brief exchange with a family friend, or the occasional Iranian movie. During our two-month summer vacations in Iran, we’d have to leave just as my speaking was becoming more fluent and my accent was improving. Otherwise, I spoke (and speak) English with my siblings and any Iranian friends I have in the US. 

Since I’ve been in Tehran, I speak with much greater ease, picking up everyday lingo and vocabulary and of course the ever-changing slang which has become rusty for my parents in their 44 years living in the US. In fact, I had to explain to my mom once what the taxi driver meant by the highway being ghofl (gridlocked). “Well that’s a new one,” she replied. 

But I probably still speak more English because of my job, and though I feel comfortable with Persian, this constant back and forth between languages has made me realize one thing: I am my true self, I am Pontia, when I speak English. And every time I think I’m making headway and conversing more like a local, it seems my American mannerisms creep in and give me away. There have been countless occasions when the person I’m talking to is giving me a ‘look’ like they sense something is up but can’t quite put their finger on it. When I let the cat out of the bag, I get a “You’re American! That’s what it is! I knew something was off.” And they proceed to tell me that I ‘act’ differently. Which indicates that while my language has improved enough to temporarily confuse them into mistaking me for a local, I just can’t seem to shake my American mannerisms. But that’s something I can live with.


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