Father Tongue

posted 13 Jul 2011, 02:31 by English Language Association of Catalonia

By Justin Webster

(Originally published in The Independent, reproduced here by permission from the author.) 

I live in a predicament I could never have envisaged: my two very young daughters speak a language I don't. I understand it perfectly, and could, if I had to, keep up a pidgin version of it. But in our house three languages co-habit - English, Spanish and Catalan. They have taken root and grown up like the bougainvilleas in our garden, intermingling here and there but jealous of their own territories, and evolving with unpredictable natural force. To maintain some order amongst the linguistic foliage, we had to plant carefully. We have sometimes had to cut back. And one of several rules, which soon turned into a habit, and then into an unconscious reflex, is that at home it is not my job to speak Catalan.

I had to be reminded that this was an artificial situation - that is, it was planned, thought about, and established by design - when I arrived back home, from a trip to London. Home is a small village outside Barcelona, where I live with Sumpta, my Spanish wife, and our two daughters. Julia was born four and a half years ago, and Rita is now on her way to two. Julia talks a lot, and Rita is beginning to do the same.

The morning after I got back I was shaving and Julia was leaning in the bathroom doorway in that offhand way children have when they have something to say:

"Daddy. Mummy speaks English but you don't speak Catalan," she said.

The mirror reflected a puzzled expression, my own, back at me. She was clearly right. I remembered vaguely that this was delicate territory, but I was still too dozy to remember exactly why.

"Would you like me to speak Catalan?" I ventured, shaving very carefully.

"No!" she said, horrified. "Some Daddies speak Catalan, and some don't."

Then she turned and shouted downstairs. "Mama, avui vaig al cole?" (Mummy, am I going to school today?)

"No! Avui es dissabte!" came the reply. (No, today is Saturday).

"Can I watch a video then?" I could tell by the language it was me who got to decide this time.

"After breakfast."

"Aeeeee!" she said, in a universal expression of childish pique.

As we went downstairs I thought back to how we had worried about languages before Julia was born. The three she would encounter were at that stage in a rather more tangled and untended state, like everything else in our home before we became parents.

First there was English. Sumpta and I met in English, in England, and we lived together in London before moving to Spain. The King and Queen of Spain also - I have subsequently learnt - met in English, in Greece (Queen Sofía is Greek), a fact that emerged because it is a royal household joke that they met and fell in love in such an unromantic language. That is not what we thought. I liked Sumpta's slight accent and the way, as sometimes happens with foreigners, she had of speaking more precisely than normal. She also paused and composed herself before answering a question, which had everyone hanging off her words, though she was in fact frantically translating her answer. When we moved to Spain English remained our private language, and our attachment to it - taken for granted before - became more accentuated. For Sumpta, who had not imagined reurning to her home country so soon, English was a refuge, a balance against the intensely local concerns of a Spanish village. Instead of living abroad she had compromised and brought some of it (me and my language) home. It developed a subversive side too, like the cant of 18th-century thieves, or the caló of a few modern day Spanish gypsies. We could use English when we didn't want anyone else - friends or family, or people in a restaurant or bar - to understand. One of the hidden benefits of speaking more than one language is actually not being understood.

As soon as we arrived in Spain - in Catalonia to be exact - I started to learn Spanish sobre la marcha - as we went along. Before we left I'd had a look at the grammar, the road map of any language, to get an idea of how difficult this was going to be. I found in the end that it was easy to learn Spanish not because the grammar is relatively simple  - it is - but because Spaniards will talk and listen to you when you are barely capable of stringing a sentence together.

Enric González, author of a perceptive and hilarious book on London, Historias de Londres, and former correspondent for El País says the English are the most articulate people he has ever met, but that we use language as a shield. As a result a certain type of English person, who Gonzalez defines as cultivated middle class, is uncomfortable conversing with foreigners who command only basic English and cannot aspire to irony. They are invariably too blunt, like children, some Americans, and most Australians.

The opposite is the case in Spain. Spaniards thrive on bluntness, on simple concepts that have to be communicated, and they warm to foreigners struggling to express their most basic thoughts or feelings. This is because it is not so much the idea that interests them but the person behind it and they know speaking a language badly can be especially revealing. As I have never been part of an ex-pat community, and I needed to work, I had to learn fast. Relishing the freedom that speaking a new language bestows I became so blunt that close friends had to hint I drop some of the more colourful expressions I'd picked up. Beginners often get stuck on certain phrases. I went through a phase of overusing "Me cago en la leche" - literally "I shit in the milk" - or "I obscenity in the milk" as Hemingway coyly translates it in "For Whom the Bell Tolls", though with a certain justification because it has a much milder charge in Spanish. Indirectness is valued in Spanish, only in different situations, like when, for example, you have to tell a friend he is making a fool of himself. I eventually got the hint.

Our third language, Catalan, brought with it not just a new vocabulary but a whole new linguistic dimension. Without Catalan we would not have had to do so much thinking about the peaceful co-existence of languages.

Sumpta is Catalan by culture but her father came from Castile, the home of Castilian otherwise known as Spanish. She has never been a militant Catalan, what is known as catalanista. She has always used both languages. Like millions of Catalans she grew up bilingual. It is precisely this bilingualism, and not Catalan on its own, that is an essential aspect of living in Catalonia.

There are political postures and programmes all tied up with championing one language above the other. Catalan has survived persecution in the past, and in the last two decades it has undergone an officially promoted revival. Politics aside, at street level the practical outcome is that you can see, for example, two women talking to each other in the market, one is speaking Catalan and the other replying in Spanish. These are not dialects but completely different languages which have evolved alongside each other, despite failed attempts to stamp one of them out. On the Spanish national news, for example, a Catalan politician speaking Catalan has to be subtitled.

This bilingualism functions with a peculiar, almost mysterious equilibrium, which is often very hard for people from other places where there is only one lingua franca, such as Madrid, Paris, London or New York, to grasp. It seems to be particularly hard for Americans to accept, and its not easy for Britons or the French, however broad-minded. Surprisingly the Japanese don't have such a problem with it, perhaps because one of their chief references for Spain is Antoni Gaudí, the architect and mystical catalanista.

Whatever an immigrant's nationality the first two years in Catalonia are inevitably spent thrashing out this conundrum in hundreds of fraught conversations. Bilingualism is not necessarily comfortable but it can be enlightening. After a while, like a piece of leathery meat hammered at by a butcher, you get tenderised. You begin not to dismiss quite so easily the emotional arguments for culture. You begin to appreciate the fervour with which Milan Kundera, a Czech, could campaign in Paris for solidarity with Slovenians or Estonians amidst the indifference of his French friends.

In "Slowness" Kundera writes a vignette of an elderly Czech entomologist modestly, almost apologetically, correcting the spelling of his name when he arrives to attend an entomologists' conference in France. His name is written Cechoripsky, but they have left off the inverted circumflex from the first letter. The young French secretary has no chance of pronouncing his name correctly with or without the circumflex, but the entomologist so charms and dazes her with an explanation of its beauty - touching on The Holy Roman Empire, butterflies and Jan Hus's orthographic reform - that their brief encounter ends in a tender smile, on her part, and melancholy pride on his. This is a dream situation for all those who love a language that not many other people in the world speak. The idea that this language could, one day, disappear, that its days as a living thing are numbered, is not unthinkable as it is, say, with English. Small cultures can never be too sure about their existence. Larger ones have sunk with little trace in the past. Some things you took for granted you reexamine.

On the other hand you start avoiding fruitless debates. Although I seldom speak Catalan I understand it so well I'm often not conscious of what language I'm listening to. I reply in Spanish except at special moments, which are themselves revealing. Sometimes when a group of friends are all speaking in Catalan, and I know that they will suddenly - and automatically - switch languages when I say something in Spanish, I try to make sure that that when I do, it is my pidgin Catalan. It is a small act of courtesy, so as not to break their stride, in return for their unconscious sense of good manners. All the political and cultural considerations are in fact resolved quite naturally by courtesy, which is bilingualism's big lesson.

So we had plenty to think about, when Sumpta was pregnant with Julia, about the cultivation of children and languages.

I had a fear. That my girls would grow up without speaking English. This appeared as a distinct possibility. I had seen other families, which included foreign parents, immigrants from other cultures, who had so assimilated themselves they had forgotten to pass on their mother tongue until it was too late. The children always understood this lost language, sometimes almost instinctively, but were too embarrassed or unpractised to speak it.

All schooling in Catalonia is in Catalan. On the street, in our village, there is the usual bilingual mixture. English is quite naturally very much in the margins. I'm not very patriotic. At least I didn't think I was. I'm not so sure now because I began to feel very passionately about my language. I discovered I carried a belligerent character inside me, who until then I had been completely unaware of, who I imagined with a shaved head, DMs and a T-shirt saying "You, er, threatening my mother tongue then?"

I wasn't worried about English being useful or not. In the Hispanic world everyone is understandably obsessed with how important English is for business, travel and generally getting on. I was afraid for different reasons. English was the future key to me communicating with my children. Like any language English is a whole world, a universe even, which I was looking forward to showing them around.

My fear reminded me of a story referred to once by Gabriel García Márquez. The central character is a Latin American exile who lives for so long outside his home country that he begins to forget the particular Spanish idiom which he had grown up with. At the same time he notices that people have stopped listening to what he says. First it is a shopkeeper, then a taxi driver, then acquaintances until finally even his wife is not only not paying attention, but they actually can no longer hear him. Cut off from his language, his personality had simply disappeared.

Distrustful of the commonest views, that too many languages are confusing, or at the other extreme that children just absorb them osmotically, we set about observing our friends' children. Joan and Encarni, bilingual Catalans, have a son, Xavi, who was then aged five. He was going to a Catalan school. Both his parents always spoke to him in Catalan. But he went through a phase of answering them only in Spanish. They were surprised. Not particularly bothered, but surprised. Xavi could not explain why he did it, but he was stubborn about it.

"So when does he hear Spanish?" we asked. "Is it that he talks with his friends in Spanish outside school." (A curious side effect of Catalan establishment pushing Catalan is that more children now speak Spanish in the playground).

"No, no," said Encarni, "I've heard them and they all speak Catalan. The only time Xavi hears Spanish is when we talk to each other. Joan and I speak Spanish when we're on our own. We always have."

It was obvious. The language a five year old most wants to speak is the language his parents speak - not to him, but to each other.

That gave me hope. We had considered both trying to speak only English at home but that would have been unnatural. I didn't realise until I had children how we instinctively revert to the language our parents used with us with our own children. It is not just the language but even, rather spookily, the phraseology. Some phrases come from so far back I can't place quite hearing them, like "Bedtime for Mummy's little soldier." Why does that float around my head in the evening? Did my mother really say that? Others like "What on earth do you think you are doing!" and "I want doesn't get" are more easily traceable. They all show up again, these phrases, eager to be re-employed. When I let go I can find myself sounding like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, which was made, not by coincidence I believe, when I was exactly the same age that Julia is now.

So it would have been pointless to ask Sumpta to speak only in English to her child. In the event I had never heard her speak so much Catalan until Julia was born.

For English we relied on heavily on our private language becoming one of hers. And believing that a language is learnt before they learn to speak (or how else does a Chinese baby say its first words in Chinese?) we talked a lot. Julia suffered the age old fate of all eldest children. She had novice parents. In her case they had a thing about language, and they jabbered at her.

So far it has worked. Julia looks at me and speaks English, looks at her mother and speaks Catalan, and when she meets a child she doesn't know in the playground her first words are in Spanish, just to be safe. Rita understands all three, and shuffles a mixture of words and noises when she speaks. As she follows Julia's footsteps her languages should branch out separately soon. At the moment Julia speaks to her more in English than Catalan. But we are wary of jumping to any conclusions yet. It'll be revealing to see which language they choose to speak together.

There are continual surprises about how they speak, connected to the mystery of our unconscious learning abilities and how a young child can grasp instinctively such a complex net of meanings and noises. It is no different with a single language, but having three throws it into relief. When I take Julia with me to the local shop the old ladies of the village marvel at how someone so young can speak a foreign language. When we go to Britain my family smile quietly to themselves when she breaks into Catalan.

An important turning point for Julia's English she reached when she was two. We went to Britain in August for the holidays and stayed with my parents. There she met all her cousins, and most importantly, her two female English cousins, Hannah and Jemma, both two years older than her. She desperately wanted to play with them and she needed all the English she knew to keep up. I heard her say quite complicated things for the first time. It dawned on her that this father tongue was shared by other little girls, it was not just a secret paternal dialect.

The consciousness of speaking different languages didn't come till she was three. By the time Rita was born Julia was beginning to invent her own words, part of her own special nonsense language which she pretends exists, particularly when anyone in the village asks her to perform, and speak English, just to listen to her. She finds her own language - which we have dubbed swahili - a source of profound hilarity, as if the exuberance of different languages living under the same roof produces not confusion, but a desire for more variety. Her secret vocabulary is inexhaustible. Makashi, piko, potososo, kantolo, seeposh, pur-r-rto, boliki. I once tried to get her to tell me her favourites but I stopped writing when we went past fifty and she was still giggling about the new ones.

I soon reached the conclusion that adults get much more confused about languages than children. For Julia the confusion is not that she speaks three languages, but that her father only uses two, and there are some people who restrict themselves to one.

Her infectious exuberance has led to a further insight. Rather than learn or use a language, you have to live with it - at the breakfast table, in the bath, in the middle of the night when you would prefer to be in bed - to love it. Only that kind of familiarity allows you to feel the weight of each word, and inspires you to play around with them.

My relationship with Catalan, for example, has gone through many stages of curiosity, annoyance, acceptance and respect before reaching what I can now call love. Few foreigners prefer Catalan compared to the more mellifluous Spanish. Catalan has a northern, where there's muck there's brass, hang to it. Its clipped character seems to fit with its recent commercial, practical and industrial past, which has some parallels with English. The old brick textile factory next to our village is "manchesteriano". Spanish is more courtly, refined, theoretical. Not until I discovered the amazing wealth and vitality of Catalan children's songs did my feelings towards it change. Now its rustic, staccato phrases suggest a larger and much more varied horizon. Some songs carry now with them a whole batch of powerful associations, from Catalan countryside to singing in the car on the way back from Barcelona, as well as being phonetically beautiful. 

Una nit tot d'una

Sobre el tronc d'un vell pi

s'enfilava la lluna

com el punt d'una i

(One night, above the trunk of an old pine tree, the moon had climbed up, like the dot on an i)

The next step, which I took with a sudden sense of vertigo, was to see the whole world in a new light. As well as being a planet of 166 countries, or five continents and five oceans, or six billion people, it is the home of 6,000 languages.

Geographical travel is so easy that I can look at the world map on the wall in my study and imagine going almost anywhere from an airport only a ten minute drive away. A few places still seem strange and inaccessible, such as the frozen wastes of Siberia, Greenland, or Northern Canada - or unwelcoming - but many other countries I have never been to appear so familiar, from films, documentaries, books, and a mixture of experience and imagination that I easily envisage what they look like.     

Travelling linguistically would be a far more arduous voyage into the unknown. Members of my English family are spread over four continents, but they can live almost exclusively in English. Even with, say, five languages you could only visit a small fraction of the world's verbal culture. In Barcelona an association of African immigrants has stuck up posters offering tuition in African languages: Arabic, Bantu, Swahili, Mandinga. I find myself wondering what the world looks like in Mandinga. As well as the vocabulary there are bound to be forms, expressions, rhythms, ideas and songs that are unique to it, and naturally completely inaudible to the uninitiated. I think it is quite likely you would learn more about Africa learning mandinga than travelling to the place where it is spoken. The sense of vertigo produced by this thought arises because it is linked to a deep human desire, tinged with megalomania, the desire for total communication. These are the terms in which Freud wrote about the dream of the "gift of tongues." The Tower of Babel, and God's punishment of mankind's pride, condemning us to speak in thousands of different tongues, is the story which explains to us, in mythical terms, our own frustrated desire.  

There is a different, more positive way of looking at the multiplicity of languages. I believe that the dream of total communication through a single language, was itself erroneous and somehow unnatural. Pidgin English, the world's lingua franca - a modern day Tower of Babel under construction - is a very useful but very blunt tool. It is not impossible to understand anyone unless you speak their mother tongue but it is a handicap.

Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque poet and novelist, who writes in Basque, has become internationally successful in translation. Only a million people can read Basque, an extremely difficult language to learn. Atxaga, who defends his language in a practical way, by writing in it, once told me that the language was always secondary, that what came first was a need to express, to communicate, and that when this was strong the method and the medium would follow. But the fact that Basque is his mother tongue is present in everything he writes, and into whatever language it is translated. The knowledge that relatively few people can penetrate his poetry, or the rest of Basque literary or musical culture so close to him, makes him very circumspect about facile judgements about other cultures, or facile judgements of any type.

Of the 6,000 languages in the world at the moment, it is estimated that there will be only half left in a hundred years. The Catalan sociologist Salvador Giner lamented this recently: "The loss of a single language impoverishes mankind....because it impoverishes the huge idiomatic diversity which, like biodiversity, we should preserve at all costs, as it constitutes the foundation of our future as beings capable of marvelling and delighting in words in all their guises."

This sensibility is probably only to be found in places where there is more than one language, or where the language that is spoken is not so dominant that it is taken for granted. I might not have appreciated it myself unless I had looked into the future and seen, for a moment, my own mother tongue under threat and me exiled to a place where no one would listen to my strange and useless idiom.