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tearing the rag off the bush again
Mother Tongue: a moving account of interlingual farrago from a mother who wants smart children PDF E-mail

Three weeks after my daughter had started first grade, we received a letter in the mail with her English-as-a-Second-Language test results: she had scored the lowest possible assessment: Tier A – described as “appropriate for language learners who have arrived in the U.S. this academic school year without previous instruction in English.” I didn’t know she had been tested. I didn’t even realize Dina wasn’t considered a native speaker of English. She has lived in the US since she was one year old and there is no language she speaks more fluently than English.

            Dina was born in Taiwan, where, at the time, Gil was doing fieldwork for his Ph.D. in Chinese religion – memorizing magical incantations with Taoist priests and translating ancient texts with Chinese academics – while I taught English at a Taiwanese college. When I got pregnant, we figured Taiwan was as good a place as any other to have a baby. But during the first weeks of Dina’s life I didn’t know what language to speak to her. I went back and forth between Hebrew, the language I speak with Gil; English, the language I had been speaking since I came as a student to the US; and Dutch, my native tongue, which I hadn’t spoken much since I left Holland at age eighteen. But then my mother called and implored me to speak Dutch to Dina. “Otherwise she’ll never be able to read your father’s books,” she said. That somehow swayed me to start speaking Dutch to Dina. Gil decided to speak to her in Hebrew, and since she started going to daycare in America, she has been speaking English. 

            When Miki was born two years later, we were back in the US. Like almost everything else in our life, our ending up back in America was something that had happened to us without much planning – but it was clear from the beginning that Miki was an American baby. His first words were in English and he always replies in English when we speak to him in Hebrew or Dutch.

            My ideal still is to raise Dutch-speaking children. But this takes such stubborn impracticality that a simple morning conversation exhausts me for the rest of the day. The Dutch I have carried with me since I left the country has become a very stunted, anemic kind of language; not really suitable for communication. Besides, with the ambitious mixture of languages we’re trying to use in our household, it takes constant effort to keep them from getting entangled. We end our sentences in different languages than we started, conduct trilingual dialogues, and we still haven’t solved the dinner table dilemma: as Gil speaks Hebrew to Dina and Miki, and they answer him in English – in what language do I join the conversation?

            Childhood language acquisition experts claim that multilingual children develop more versatile brains than monolingual children: once children learn how to switch back and forth between languages, they also develop talents for other kinds of mental gymnastics. So I thought I was raising cosmopolitan, multilingual, superior children who’d be at home anywhere in the world and who’d nimbly slink between languages, cultures, and realities. But it didn’t really worked out as I envisioned. Instead, we are raising a confused American toddler, and a daughter who, according to her school’s assessment, is falling between the language cracks.

 

            Dina’s test results were accompanied by a note from the ESL teacher, Mrs. Schwab, explaining that the Vermont Department of Education requires all children from multilingual households to be tested and monitored. She suggested that I meet with her to discuss the results and decide on a course of action.  I scheduled an appointment even though her patronizingly helpful tone irked me. As a foreigner in this country I am sensitive about condescensions that imply that I somehow fall short of the expectations of some nebulous government agency.

Being an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher myself, I figured I’m just as knowledgeable as Mrs. Schwab. If I scheduled a meeting with the “expert,” it wasn’t to listen to her, but to rectify [I love the word “rectify” when I’m angry. It’s so proper and so obscene at the same time!] her flawed perception of my daughter and to point out that the test must be ridiculously inaccurate. How dare those bureaucrats question my daughter’s English proficiency! Isn’t it enough that she doesn’t speak Dutch?

I have been singing Dutch lullabies to her since she was a baby, I’ve been reading her bedtime stories in Dutch, and I’ve insisted on speaking Dutch even when we live our lives in English, but I’m almost ready to concede that English has won. My kids’ American childhood doesn’t translate to the language of a country they’ve never lived in.


            “Let’s see, what did I do at school today?...” Dina replies in English to my “Wat heb je vandaag op school gedaan?” (What did you do at school today?), which is what I ask her almost every time I pick her up because I can’t come up with anything better to ask.

“We had a dictation in the morning,” she continues, as she grabs my hand to cross the street to the school parking lot, “ Mrs. Draper read us words and we had to write them down.”

“En was het een moeilijke… dictation... dictée?” I ask, trying to come up with the Dutch word for “dictation.” A “dictée” is what I would have had in my elementary school in Amsterdam in the 1970s. But Dina doesn’t know the word “dictée” and this French loanword sounds too pretentious for a 21st century American classroom. I bet they don’t even have “dictées” anymore in Holland these days. Our conversations are slow and strained, as I try to find the Dutch words that convey our American experiences and search for words I haven’t used since I was a child.

I cling to Dutch because I’m afraid that if I speak English to my children, they are hearing a translation of me instead of my real self. And I hope that by making my children speak Dutch, I can reconnect them to my own childhood. But in the middle of every slow laborious sentence, I consider the futility of my attempt and ask myself: Why do I hold on to this irrational nostalgia? So what if my children won’t speak the language of my youth? They will never live in Holland anyway. Why do I make them speak a language I myself have been betraying for years? I teach English and I write in English. Even when I still lived in Holland I didn’t have a strong loyalty to the language. I used to joke I couldn’t love in Dutch because our language lacks the appropriate vocabulary. [“Ik hou van jou” (pronounced: ick how van yow), is Dutch for “I love you”, and sounds as if one wants to cut up the object of affection and store him in a freezer. (“Vleeshouwer” (pronounced: flace-hower ) is Dutch for butcher, and “houthakker” (pronounced: howd-hacker) means lumberjack.)] So I ended up marrying an Israeli and having English-speaking children.

I’m on the verge of accepting that my children are American and that it makes sense to speak to them in the language in which we live our lives. But when I listen to my voice in English, I hear not myself, but a pathetic, phony woman with a Dutch accent trying to sound like an American “mom.” And I decide again, as I do at the end of almost every sentence, to commit to speaking Dutch. With every sentence an existential crisis, I often prefer silence. And in the silence I feel my children slip away from me.

 

I once met a Native Alaskan woman from the Koyukun Nation who had been taken away to a boarding school when she was nine years old. That was still US policy in the 1950s: to take away Native American and Alaskan children from their families to “civilize” them. She told me that when she met her family again two years later, she had completely forgotten the Koyukun language and, since her parents didn’t speak English, they could no longer communicate. That story haunts me. Although no one is threatening to take away my children or forcefully trying to reeducate them, and although it was my own doing that I ended up in this country, speaking this foreign language, I too am afraid I’ll lose my children to English.

 

            “Hello! How good to meet you!” Mrs. Schwab beamed at me. She spoke with the strange twang of someone trying to cover up her original accent. Was she a social climber, ashamed of her roots? Was she hiding an embarrassing regional accent? There was something a bit off about this woman. She had tried to dress modestly conservative, befitting a school teacher, but with her white cardigan, pearl earrings, embroidered white button-down shirt, and her vigorously rouged cheeks, she looked simultaneously too frumpy and too loud.

            She led me into a tiny windowless office about the size of a walk-in closet and offered me a child-size seat at a child-size table as she sat down across from me on her own little chair.            

            “I had to move into this smaller office because of the nurse needed more space,” she explained, as if to apologize for her low ranking in the school’s services hierarchy. I noticed the syntactical error: “because of” followed by a dependent clause, an error I constantly correct in my students’ writing. I find other people’s errors very reassuring. It makes me feel better about my own deficiencies. I’m always on the lookout for mistakes, and when someone who’s supposed to know better slips up, my heart does a little victory jiggle. I have a collection of awkward sentences that appeared in our local newspaper (“While trying to rob a convenience store, state police arrested Megan Perkins, 19, from Shelburne”), I write down the misspeakings of public speakers (“These problems need to be made aware of”), and I underline in pencil mistakes I find in official documents. I figure that if native speakers can’t be trusted with their own language, they can’t deny me the right to use it. I particularly like to hear people getting entangled in fancy expressions that they employ to sound more sophisticated than they actually are (“in regards of those spark plugs, I’ll just put in new ones”). It’s what I do all the time. I’m always playing out of my league, straining to keep up the pretense, afraid of being found out. To stake a claim on the English language, I cloak myself in the collocations, idioms and expressions that I hear native speakers use: “I got the ball running on that”, “to keep the home fires burning”, “to have a shot at it”— it sounds ridiculous when I say it. I know I am a fake, an imposter. I stumble over words, use the wrong prepositions, and mismatch idioms: “it’s like chasing cats…” – no – “…herding cats…” ; “are we all at the same page?” – no – “…on the same page?”; “To stake a claim on it…”  – no, no –  “…to it.” My mistakes and misspeakings follow me like spiteful ghosts, sneaking up on me to remind me that I am a fake. They remind me that when I spoke to Sarah three weeks ago I used “confined in” instead of “confided in”, and that when addressing a lecture hall full of students I mispronounced “poignant.” They spitefully convince me that people snicker behind my back when they find out I’m an English teacher; that whatever I do, I’ll never be at home in this language. “Native speakers can do with their language whatever they want,” my mistakes tell me, “but you will always remain an intruder.” To redeem myself, I compulsively note the errors of native speakers.

A few weeks ago, I went to buy some colored board paper at a small crafts shop.

“Do to a family emergency we will close at 3pm,” said a handwritten note on the door. The teacher in me couldn’t let it go by.

“Shouldn’t that be ‘due to’?” I suggested to the girl at the counter, an all-American teenager with a blond ponytail and a gray Red Sox sweater. She looked up from her magazine to take in my comment and stared at me in hostile incomprehension.

“Do to?” she asked.

“‘Due to’- D-U-E,” I suggested helpfully.

“D-U-E?” the girl looked at me blankly, shrugged, and turned back to her magazine: Why doesn’t that crazy foreigner mind her own business? It’s a family emergency for Chrissake!

 

Mrs. Schwab must have dealt with many suspicious parents like me, who doubted the need for her involvement with their children. She was ready with a spiel about possible troubles lying ahead.

“We are observing Dina because even if she seems to be speaking well now, problems may come up later when the academic level becomes more demanding,” she explained. The “we” startled me. Was there a whole organization behind this woman?                     

“Dina’s first language is English,” I said stubbornly, “She’s not an English-as-a-second-language learner.” I felt like a cornered tigress, trying to protect my offspring from becoming linguistically orphaned. If they take away English from Dina and classify her as a non-native speaker, she has no native language left.         

Mrs. Schwab went over Dina’s file to prove me that English was indeed not her native language:

“You wrote here that Dina was born in Taiwan and that during the first year of her life she was exposed to Hebrew, Dutch, and Chinese. She wasn’t exposed to any English until she came to the U.S.!” I remembered filling out those student-information forms when I registered Dina for school. I had added Chinese because the form offered only three spaces for languages, and I had wanted to show that Dina couldn’t be fitted into three neat little boxes. In Taiwan, Dina had a babysitter who spoke Chinese, but the only Chinese that she’d ever responded to was: “wo sho” (hold my hand), and “mama lai” (Mommy is coming). I had also considered writing down Bunun, an indigenous Taiwanese language on the verge of extinction. The babysitter was aboriginal and occasionally sang Dina lullabies in her dying childhood language.  The idea of my daughter being a native speaker of an extinct aboriginal language had appealed to me.

“She was thirteen months old when she came to America. She never spoke a word in another language before she came here,” I retorted. 

“But technically English is her second language,” argued Mrs. Schwab, “Experts say that that first year of exposure does make a difference.” A stupid technicality! Who were those “experts” Mrs. Schwab was hiding behind? According to the theories I learned it’s only after age ten that children lose some flexibility in learning a new language.

“Anyway, technically Dina is trilingual, with English as her dominant language,” I corrected Mrs. Schwab, barely able to hide the surge of triumph in my voice as I pronounced the word “trilingual” – pathetic snob that I am.  Poor Dina. What does she need three languages for? All it gives her is confusion and ESL evaluations with Mrs. Schwab.  She often gets stuck mid-sentence because she doesn’t remember what language she’s speaking. She barely talked until she was four years old. She’d nod or shake at questions and would always find the most succinct reply possible:

“Hoe was het op school vandaag?” – “Goed.” (How was school today? – Good)

“Heb je leuke dingen gedaan?”– “Ja.” (Did you have fun? – Yes)

“Wat heb je gedaan?” – “Blocks.”  (Wat did you do? – Blocks) 

“Met wie heb je gespeeld?” – “Bryn.” (Who did you play with? – Bryn.)

When pressed for more, she’d snap: “Heb ik al gezegd” (I already told you). She finally started talking when she went to kindergarten – in English. I thought the kindergarten teacher mistook me for some other kid’s mom when she called my daughter “a little chatterbox.” In hindsight I understand that Dina’s silence was not a sign of a shy or withdrawn personality, but that for the first four years of her life she couldn’t decide what language to speak. Sometimes I ask her if she wants me to talk English to her, if that would simplify our interactions.

“Nee, mama” she says in Dutch, “Je kan Hollands met me praten.” (You can speak Dutch to me), and she lays her hand on my arm, as if she knows I’m the one in need of reassurance.

 

            “Some immigrant parents, they don’t really have the fluency to read English books to their children,” said Mrs. Schwab, as she tried to explain that even when immigrant children speak English fluently, the state requires ESL monitoring because immigrant parents can’t always provide sufficient academic support. Was she hinting that I’m not a good mother because I don’t always read to my children in English? Was she saying that I’m impeding my children’s chances at academic success because I read them bedtime stories in Dutch? It always makes Miki a bit fidgety because he needs to interrupt to ask me for the meaning of every other word.

“Mama, what’s ‘daverend gesnurk’?” asks Miki as I read Pippi Longstocking in Dutch – “ it means ‘loud snoring’, lieverdje.”

“Mama, what’s ‘zeerover’?” – “ ‘pirate, lieverdje.’”

“Mama, what is ‘dromerig’?” – “ ‘dreamy’, lieverdje.”  

The only Dutch word that I’m sure he understands without difficulty is “lieverdje” (sweetie).  I’m grateful he’s still willing to listen, but I know that soon the day will come when he loses patience with my farce and insists that I read to him in English only. Unlike Dina, Miki never wavered between languages. When he talks to me about Dutch he calls it “your language.”  

“Mama,” he’ll ask me, “how do you say ‘pumpkin’ in your language? And how do you say Halloween?”

How do I explain to him that there is no Halloween in Dutch; that some things just don’t translate? Maybe nothing really translates. There are no ‘pumpkins’ in Dutch either, there are “pompoenen’, and those we don’t carve into Jack-o-lanterns. We make soup out of them.

            Miki likes to play that he’s a baby animal and that I’m the mommy animal suckling him. He cuddles up against me, making little grunting and cooing noises, and pretends to drink my milk. I love those moments of wordlessness; just feeling the softness of his skin, the warmth of his body, the wriggliness of his limbs, and the rhythm of his breathing. But sometimes I worry that he craves this physicality because we can’t communicate in words. One day – very soon – he’ll be too big to cuddle up with me and pretend he’s a puppy dog. What then? 

 

            I noticed with some satisfaction that Mrs. Schwab’s English was breaking down as she unsuccessfully tried to convince me that Dina could not be considered a native speaker.

“Some language problems, you know, they don’t become apparent until later,” she explained, “I work for example with an adopted Ethiopian boy who came to this country at age eight. He now speaks fluent but his writing skills are not up to his peers, you know.”

I didn’t see what that had to do with my daughter and stubbornly challenged her with other language scenarios to complicate her simplistic definitions of native and non-native speakers:

“If native English speakers have a child in a foreign country and return when the child is ten, would the child be a native speaker?”

“How about children with a foreign nanny? And what if a child doesn’t speak his parents’ language? And how about children who grow up speaking a dialect?”

“As I mentioned before,” said Mrs. Schwab, “experts agree that the first years in a person’s life are significant on the development of language skills.” She was crumbling. I wasn’t letting her apply the linguistic theories of her experts to my life and my children. Not knowing what to do with me, she tried to put me in my place with meaningless stock phrases:

“It is generally agreed that early language exposure impacts children even in a pre-verbal phase…. As I said earlier… The fact that Dina’s predominant language is English does not necessarily mean she’s not an ESL learner…”

            But her mask of professional certitude couldn’t hide her panic. I saw through her tricks because when I’m afraid of my students, I too try to overpower them with fancy terminology: “An uncountable noun doesn’t take an indefinite article, unless the speaker wants to indicate that he or she is using the noun as a count-noun.”

I teach foreign graduate students who need to improve their English to be able to cope in the academic world: biochemists from Colombia, Italian computer scientists, Japanese mathematicians, and engineering students from China.

                They bring me their research papers, and I correct the verbs tenses and the definite and indefinite articles, and attach names and rules to their deficiencies. Once a week I offer an English study hour, during which we talk about grammar, current events, and the peculiarities of “American culture” (as if I know what that is!).  I usually start by having everyone introduce themselves. [Yes, I’m aware I just used a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent.]

“I’d like everyone to tell us where they’re from, how long they’ve been here, and which department they’re in,” I’ll say. It’s usually the same group of people that attends my study meetings, so I already know their lines by heart:

“Hi, my name is Yukio Tanakatan from Japan, I’m Ph.D. in medical engineering.”

“Hello, I’m Valentina Manuylova from Moskva. I work in Chemistry Department.”

“Jeeyong Song. Korea. Computer Science.”

            As I nod at the person next to me to encourage her to begin, I feel the dread spreading through my body, tightening my muscles, tickling my spine: should I, or shouldn’t I introduce myself when we’ve gone full circle? Should I tell them I was born in Holland? No one suspects I’m not a real American. “I never claimed to be a native speaker,” I reassure myself, “I’m not to blame if people made a wrong assumption.”

When my colleagues assure me that the fact that I speak with an accent is an advantage and that not taking the English language for granted gives me deeper insights as a teacher, I nod in grateful relief. But I know better. Who are they kidding? As tolerant as native speakers may be, it’s the non-native speakers whom I have to satisfy. Once, when I tried to correct a Korean woman who had written “This paper argues that scientists and humanists need to be bridged to each other,” she angrily walked out of my office, saying she was sure her English was fine and that she’d consult with a native speaker.

While we move from Juan Pereiro, to Amir Zamani, to Liu Lin, I hide my mounting panic under a benevolent smile.  I still haven’t decided if I will confess this time. I long for an opportunity to come clean but I’m afraid I’ll be denounced. I want to join the circle and shout out: “I’m one of you! I’m a learner too! Please, forgive me for deceiving you!” Every time we’re halfway through the introductions, I resolve to be brave and speak up, but when it’s finally my turn I always blurt out, with a silly little shrug: “Oh well, you all know me. Let’s talk about this week’s assignment...”

            But last week I had two new Chinese students: Jia Wei and Xiao Wen, engineering students fresh from China. Unlike most Mainland Chinese, who never seem to be able to catch up with American clothing fashions, these men looked as if they’d stepped out of a catalogue for preppy casual wear (manufactured in China, of course). As the others spoke haltingly, the two new students constantly whispered to each other in Chinese. I imagined they were planning a way to get out of this sorry language class. They hadn’t chosen to be here. The dean of the engineering school – finally realizing that for years he had been handing out diplomas to students who were barely able to understand the graduation speech – had suddenly decided that all engineering students should learn fluent English and had singled out the less proficient new international students and required them to attend my class. I thought I recognized the new students’ defiance: demoted from intelligent adults to helpless language learners, they needed to challenge my authority.

            “Hi everybody, I’m Xiao Wen. I’m from Guangzhou in China and I’m in the school of engineering. I arrived here six weeks ago,” Xiao drawled.  The other student introduced himself with an equally obvious disdain:

“Hi, my name is Jia Wei. But you can call me Jack. I’m from Shanghai, China. I too am an engineer. I want to become a consultant, so it’s really important for me to improve my English.” I was in awe. The two new students spoke with perfect American accents that they must have acquired by watching hours of Hollywood movies. I, after all these years, still can’t pronounce the English “th.” Dutch doesn’t have interdental consonants, so by default I use the Dutch “d.”

When I just began teaching English, an older friend of mine, raised before the age of tolerance and pluralism, bluntly remarked: “Judith, how can you teach English if you can’t properly say the word ‘the’?” Since then I have been taking great care to vibrate my tongue against my upper front teeth whenever I pronounce any “th” sound. The struggle with my tongue makes my speech awkwardly halting and takes up so much mental effort that midsentence I often forget what I was saying.

I contort my speech to avoid words I know I can’t say, such as the word “idea,” which I tend to pronounce as “I.D.” and “through” which in my mouth turns into “threw.” If possible, I would like to abolish all words with an initial “th.”    

Huang Xia, an biomedical researcher who had learned English when English-language instruction in China still primarily relied on badly translated vocabulary lists, was intimidated by her younger compatriots.

“You guys speak so well!” she remarked humbly, “I still have hard time after seven years in US!” I wanted to reassure Huang Xia that even though she speaks without articles or verb tenses and doesn’t distinguish between long and short vowels, what she says is more intelligent than the conversation of many native speakers. But I couldn’t say this without embarrassing her even further, so I just motioned to the next person at the table. As we came full circle, and my turn to speak came up, I felt paralyzed with indecisiveness. I considered for a moment making my confession.

“Welcome, everybody,” I said, brightly looking around the table to cover up my unease. “Did you all have a chance to look at this week’s assignment?”

Jack interrupted me: “Can you tell us where you’re from? I think I detect an accent.”

            “Oh, I forgot to introduce myself!” I exclaimed falsely, “I’m Judith, I’m originally from Holland, but I’ve lived off and on in the US for almost fifteen years. I have been working here as an English teacher for three years.” A murmur of surprise and polite disappointment went through the room. 

“I thought you are native speaker,” said Huang Xia in puzzlement. I felt awful at having misled her, but now I had to save face.  

“No, my first language is Dutch,” I replied as if she should have known that all along.

“So how did you learn English so well?” asked Jeeyong. I turned to creative linguistic genealogy:

“Oh, English and Dutch are almost the same language,” I said, “When the Anglo-Saxon and Frisian tribes moved from Germany to Britain in the 6th century, some of their people stayed behind in the Netherlands. Dutch is a kind of proto-English,” I proclaimed with a certitude that surprised even myself. I’m not sure if the students were satisfied with my explanation or if they were just too embarrassed for me to ask further questions, but there was a nodding of heads and a content “hmmm,” of people indicating they had just learned an interesting new factoid. Then we talked about the role of the First Amendment in American society, and we actually had a pretty good class.


            This week, most of my regular students attended as usual. Only Huang Xia and Valentina stayed away. Maybe their absence had nothing to do with their finding out that I’m not a native speaker. I don’t know. Jack and Xiao Wen were back too, eagerly participating in our discussion on a Billy Collins poem, and with some relief I noticed that they couldn’t quite pronounce final r’s, and that their near-perfect accents couldn’t cover up their misspeakings and syntactical errors.      

 

            I used to think of English as a language of freedom; an international language disassociated from place and origins. Somehow I didn’t take into account that English belongs to its native speakers. I’m not free in English. Native speakers kindly allow me to make use of their language, but I’m a guest in a strange house. If I want to remain welcome I must behave myself. When native speakers ask me about my profession, I feel the need to apologize for my audacity in teaching their language to others, as if I’ve betrayed their hospitality by sneaking in uninvited strangers through the backdoor.

             “Oh, but you don’t need to worry! Your English is perfect!” a friend reassured me when I told her I feel like an imposter when I teach. I accepted the compliment  […here a long pause while I’m trying to come up with the correct English word…] nonchalantly, and, as always, assumed that the subtext of the praise was: “your English is perfect for a foreigner”. I don’t mind – I’m always happy to accept compliments – but I worry that it’s all based on a misunderstanding: that I’m praised for my English under the assumption that English is an extra-curricular achievement for me; that in reality I belong in another language. As if native speakers don’t deserve this kind of praise because they have no choice but to speak English. I no longer have a choice either.

            My friend mentioned that she loves the unusual flavor that non-native speakers bring from their languages into English.

“It’s just so refreshing,” she said, “how foreign diction and idioms can enrich English!” It makes me wonder if I should exaggerate a bit; if I should slip a little more Dutch into my English to be better loved? But I know that if I bring Dutch into my English, it’s not an attempt to please my audience with refreshing exoticism, it’s just me making embarrassing mistakes that I should avoid by being more disciplined. Native speakers can afford to let loose and do whatever they want in their language – it’ll always remain theirs – but if I want to make any claims on English, I must earn the right to it by proving that I use it well. I’m jealous of people who are at home in their language, who can just kick off their shoes, slouch back, and relax.

 

            When I complain that I no longer feel at home in any language, people don’t seem to believe me. They’ll ask me what language I think in, but I’m usually not aware of thinking in any language until I need to find the words to talk and realize I can’t translate thoughts into words. I tend to get stuck mid-sentence, trying to haul up words from crevices in my linguistic memory. I can usually see tips of words peeping out from their hiding spaces, but the harder I try to get at them, the further they slip away, and, in the meantime, other words, in other languages, clamor for my attention and try to wrestle me. When I’m speaking English, Dutch and Hebrew words come barging in; and when I speak Dutch, English wants to take over.

            During a staff meeting, while I’m trying to present myself to my colleagues as a self-assured professional, the word ‘consult’ escapes me mid-sentence, and I’m being pestered by the Hebrew word ‘lehityaetz’.

            “Why don’t you use me?” whispers ‘lehityaetz’, “I’m not as formal and aloof.”

            “I can’t use you!” I whisper back, “I’m speaking English now! Go away! Get me an English word! Quick!”

“They notified the students without first… first…consulting with me,” I tell my colleagues as I’m trying to make clear that a premature email announcement hadn’t been approved by me. “I worry that this has bred some ….” and as I try to grab hold of ‘resentment’, the Dutch ‘rancune’ rudely rushes in to push it aside.

“Leave me alone!” I hiss at “rancune’, “Can’t you see I’m in a staff meeting! They’re waiting for me to finish this sentence in English, and anyway, you’re so passé, I wouldn’t even use you if I were speaking Dutch!” But as ‘rancune’ turns aside with an injured little shrug, ‘resentment’ has fled. My colleagues are still looking at me in polite expectation  – will I ever complete that sentence or not? – and as I consider whether to pursue the word that just got away or settle on something more easily in reach, my mind goes blank.

“some… some…,” I say, “some students seemed upset.” My colleagues relax in disappointment. They always hope to see me rise out of the linguistic bogs that I find myself in, and I almost always fail them. They must be embarrassed to have hired me.

“Yeah, I see your point” Tom, my boss, tries to help me out, “There’s not much you can do now to remedy the situation. Bringing it up again will just fan the flames.” That’s not at all what I had been trying to say, but I nod in agreement. I’m sure he knows better than I what I’m supposed to be doing.

 

            Words slip away from me, crash into each other, hide themselves, taunt me, and string themselves together into sentences that ensnare me until I stumble and fall flat on my face. In my mind, without the limitations of language, I seem to be whole, but as soon as I open my mouth to communicate, I become broken and scattered.

“Hi, how was your day?” Carol asks me as we walk together to the daycare to pick up our children. ‘Busy, busy,” I mumble, trying to find the words to describe a flurry of meetings, frantic email correspondence, a sense of anguish at my growing to-do list, the satisfaction of hearing that a paper I helped edit has been accepted for publication, and the pressure in my bladder as I promise myself I’ll go to the bathroom when I’m done replying to one more email. We have already entered the classroom and embraced our children when I realize that the correct response would have been to ask Carol about her day.

 

            Looking out into the human world, I sometimes feel that I am the only one who’s not initiated into the secret codes of communication. Everyone else seems to be bonding, chattering, conversing, interacting, connecting, and relating in smooth, impenetrable, self-containing units of communication. One word evokes another word; one question evokes a response and a counter-question:

‘What’s up?” – “Not much.”

“Enjoying the weather?” – “Yeah, could be the last warm weekend of the year!”

“You look great!” – “Thanks! You look great too!”                  

I am never ready with the correct reply. I’m always too late in recognizing the cues. I stumble clumsily into things that should be left undisturbed, heedlessly unleash words I can’t control, and burden others with opaque statements that I myself don’t understand. Sometimes, when during our marital tiffs Gil accuses me of intentions and motives I never harbored, I realize that in our communications over the previous months, he never understood a word of what I had been trying to say. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise: I talk to him in my flawed Hebrew, throwing in an occasional English word when I’ve exhausted my Hebrew vocabulary. The words that recur in almost all my sentences are: ‘ha-eich-korim-le-ze’ (the what-do-you-call-it) and ‘ha-ze’ (the whatever): “Where’s the what-do-you-call-it? I thought I put it next to the whatever,” and his irritated response is always: “Ein li musag al ma at medaberet!” (I’ve no idea what you’re talking about!)

            I sometimes fear that all my conversations consist of such deficient exchanges. The unruly words refuse to carry the meaning I want them to carry, and I’m left alone in the delusion that I am communicating.

 

            Maybe it’s because I no longer have the experience of being a “native speaker” that I idealize native speakers. I imagine that if I were speaking in a language that I were native to, I would feel perfectly at ease and would be able to communicate instantly, without effort or self-consciousness. But “native,” according to my dictionary, comes from the Latin verb “nasci” - to be born. Nobody is born with language. We aren’t even aware of a need for language until we realize that we and our sensations are not one and the same: that that yummie warm breast with food coming out of it is part of another creature with its own wishes. Maybe nobody is really at home in the words they use. Language is always just an approximation. The most perfect communication I seem able to achieve is when I ignore the outside world and talk to myself in writing.

 

            “Okay, let’s look at Dina’s test score,” Mrs. Schwab proposes, probably tired of arguing with me over the definition of a native speaker. She points at the one bar in the graph that towers above the others.

“You see, Dina did very well on the speaking component of the test,” Mrs. Schwab tries to console me: “Don’t worry, she probably may catch up soon. She’s a late birthday, you know. She’s still very young compared with her classmates.”

“I’m not worried,” I say, “ But how is it possible that Dina scored better on the speaking test than on the listening test? Have you ever heard of anyone who speaks English without understanding it?”

“If I recall correctly, Dina didn’t respond to all the instructions,” said Mrs. Schwab.

 “What kind of instructions was she given?” 

 “Fold the paper in half and put it on your table the long way,” Mrs. Schwab reads to me.

I take the paper, fold it in half, and toss it on the table. Mrs. Schwab leans over and aligns the longer side of the folded paper with the edge of the table in front of me.

“Write today’s date on the right hand corner of the paper,” she continues. 

“But Dina has never learned the dates!” I exclaim, “And besides, when she took the test she had just started first grade and couldn’t even write yet! If I don’t remember today’s date, does that say anything about my English abilities?”

 

Mrs. Schwab protests that she hasn’t designed the test, that it was created by a team of experts in Wisconsin, that she just administers it and sends it out to be scored. 

“Would you have been able to write the date when you just started first grade?” I ask, “Did you already know how to read and write?”

Mrs. Schwab is silent for a moment and I wonder if I’ve embarrassed her with a question that’s too personal or hostile. She brushes away a strand of hair from her forehead, quickly glances around the room, and then locks eyes with me in a desperate smile.

 “I didn’t go to school in the U.S.,” she finally says. “But no, when I entered first grade in Brazil, I couldn’t read or write.”

            I feel the victory rush comfortably spreading through my body. I can’t help smiling. This is all I’ve wanted her to acknowledge. She’s an imposter, a swindler, just like me. And now that we are both exposed, my anger dissipates. For a few moments we are silent in mutual understanding: neither of us will ever feel completely comfortable in English, but we will have to keep up the impossible pretense that we are enough at home in it to teach it to others. For a moment I imagine Mrs. Schwab becoming my friend. We will talk about what it’s like to always keep up a façade, to always feel incompetent. With each other we’ll be able to let our guards down. We’ll talk in flawed English, laugh at each other’s mistakes, and I’ll pronounce “through” and “idea” without any self-consciousness.

            But I can’t come up with anything to say that won’t sound silly and inappropriate. Mrs. Schwab looks at her watch: “A student is supposed to come any minute now…” We smile at each other politely and get up to shake hands.

 

 
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