It’s better to be kind in one language than a jerk in eight | Page 181 | KATARINA WEST

It’s better to be kind in one language than a jerk in eight

The more languages you speak the more complicated things will get.

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Have you noticed that nowadays there’s a horrible mania for being international and cosmopolitan and multilingual and suchlike, and parents send their offspring to a German-speaking nursery school even if they don’t speak a word of German themselves, and everyone claims on Facebook that they speak, what, five or six languages, even if that “speaking” means that they can barely order lunch in a restaurant or ask directions to the nearest tourist information office?

It’s about time somebody spoke the truth about speaking languages. Like, it’s better to be sincere in one language than a complete low life in eight others. And that nobody – and I do mean nobody – can speak more than 4.2 languages.

Let me explain.

Living here in Tuscany, I’m a member of the Florentine émigré community, and linguistically speaking that’s an excellent laboratory to examine how people with multinational backgrounds speak. And it’s true that within that community people mix languages, and your expat friend can say to you, for example, ça va sans dire, without being either French or posh. Then there are the Latinists, ars longa, vita brevis, and the German speaking, leben und leben lassen. It’s like food in Italy – since everyone’s an expert, you can talk about wines and cheese yet no one takes you for a gourmet.

What’s more, most expats mix whatever language they speak with Italian, because that’s the country we all live in, and the Italian language just seeps into your speaking and thinking, no matter what you do. And that’s why you might say that you’ll “call the pediatra” and drop by “at the giornalaio” and buy your dog “some croccantini”. Because the Italian words just sneak into your head and your diction, insidiously, and once they’re there, there’s no way of getting rid of them. And every time two Florentine expats chatting in English are surrounded by a group of American tourists snapping photos and exclaiming how OLD and BEAUTIFUL everything is, they change their language into Italian in a matter of nanoseconds. Not necessarily because they communicate better in Italian, but because they want to make sure that they’re not being taken for tourists – hence, untouchables.

So how many languages do these expats speak? I’d say around 1.4 to 4.2 languages, though this is just my rough estimate – you’d really need some proper research to have a more precise answer. This means that they might have studied as much as five or six languages, but life being life, they remember perhaps from 10% to 60% of each language, including the mother tongue that they have partially forgotten. The more languages they know, the less they remember of any given language, and therefore, the lower the percentage will be. This is why they must mix languages. Because otherwise they wouldn’t know what to say.

OK, maybe I should also reveal how many languages speak. I would say, in all fairness, that I speak some 2.1 languages, though then there’s my husband of course, claiming that I speak only one peculiar pidgin language called Katarinian, and I speak it fluently in all its splendid, multiple variations. But then again, in his opinion only three Italians have ever spoken proper Italian – Dante, Petrarch and my husband himself – and the rest have always spoken just a merry hell of Katarinian. So yes, you might want to take his views with a pinch of salt.

Plus, what does it mean, to speak a language? As a general rule, it should mean that you can slouch on a therapist’s coach with your eyes closed, and analyse that vague Sunday angst that has no name – and you can do it spontaneously, without really thinking about how to formulate your next sentence. That is what speaking a language means, in its most rigorous and literal form.

And just to make matters more complicated, there are also people (myself included) who write in more than one language. I won’t go into what that means, except that you’d better edit what you write at least a zillion times and have someone good to proofread your texts. (Hi, James!) I changed the language I used for my novels in my twenties, when I was completing my doctorate in English and couldn’t find my way back into writing in Finnish, and it’s curious how many conflicting reactions I got when I told people that I was no longer writing in my native language.

First of all there were the Purists, who were almost outraged that I had abandoned my mother tongue; and then there were the Opportunists, who believed that languages are like clothes, and as such, you should change them according to your needs. For Purists language was an end in itself, something inviolable and nearly sacred, whereas for Opportunists it was a means to something, a useful tool that can be learned and moulded.

I don’t know where I stand in this debate – probably somewhere in the middle, as always. But I do know that years ago I tried to write a novel in Finnish and though it was technically possible, it seemed really strange, like swimming fully clothed. Nowadays I write articles in Finnish and novels in English, and when I write in Finnish, I switch on my Finnish brains; and when I write in English, I switch on my English brains; and you can’t mix those two brains; and you shouldn’t write in two different languages on the same day. Or else you will go completely insane.

Then there’s of course Haruki Murakami, who (so I once read) found his narrative voice by first writing his texts in English and then translating them into Japanese. To which I can only say Good Luck, Haruki. Because I can’t think of a more convoluted way to write prose than that.

But it’s only when you create a world made of words that you realise how much the language you use shapes the world you’re creating. Let’s take Finnish for example, where there are just two personal pronouns for the third person singular – “he/she” for a human being, and “it” for an animal/object. And then compare it with Italian, Spanish or French, where the entire world is divided between the masculine and feminine. That’s why living in Italy is such a linguistic mystery to me. I look at things and I just can’t get it. Like, why are frying pans feminine? Does it have something to do with their nice, round contours? Maybe frying pans are buxom, ruddy peasant women, like those milkmaids in Vermeer’s paintings? Well, go figure. And I can’t shut my eyes to the grammatical inter-lingual inconsistencies either, because for me they’re tantamount to waging pseudo-philosophical wars. Like milk is masculine in Italian but feminine in Spanish, and the Italians and the Spaniards can split hairs until the end of time as to whether milk is more manly or womanly.

For me, milk is just milk.

So as you can see, the more languages you speak the more complicated things will get, and the more you’re bound to forget.

And that’s why it is always better to say something genuine and kind in one language than a lot of rubbish in eight others.

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