Insubordinate Lives: The Invisible Tension of a Second-Language

The Polyphony aims to stimulate, catalyse, provoke, expand and intensify conversations in the critical medical humanities. But what does it mean, and how does it feel, to be having these conversations in English as a non-native speaker? Marco Bernini reflects on the silent and invisible tensions of life in a second language. 

Illustration of the Buridan’s Ass Pardox From Peter Killeen, ‘Mechanics of the Animate’. Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behaviour 1992 57: 429-463.

As an Italian who moved to the UK to try to make a life in academia (since in Italy my interdisciplinary field of study is almost non-existent), I came to this country with many concerns regarding the possibility of integrating into a different civic and working system. Language was also among my first worries, but then people on this island have proven exceptionally open to my clumsy accent, and have never made me feel unable to talk or work with them. In addition, I always loved grammars, and at the beginning it was almost pleasurable to savour new words, making notes on pronunciation and idiomatic sentences. Things got more interesting when I reached a level of proficiency that allowed me to do basically all I needed to do, in life and at work (albeit having to spend thrice the time of a native speaker).

Slowly, together with missing the sun and the blue sky of Italian spring, I felt that the price of my new growing English self was to make my Italian self shrink or stall. I had systematically made the choice of not looking for Italian friends or colleagues in the UK and stopped reading in my native tongue. This was in order to perfect the language and to avoid becoming the nostalgic Italian who talks with other Italians about missing that ingredient, this festivity, that commodity. Probably also due to this quite radical stance, I started soon to notice growing differences between my two selves. The sound of my voice in English was significantly different, and small talk (never my strongest suit) and jokes were difficult or impossible in this second life (resulting in appearing more serious or shy than usual). More importantly, though, among the new limitations in terms of linguistic affordances there was the difficulty of expressing my thoughts transparently and originally (as my thoughts). In terms of transparency, speaking or writing in the first year or so were, far from a transparent glass through which you let yourself emanate, a dishevelled construction site, tiring you like a physical fatigue. The the transparency increases when you get hold of the new language, but the window still gets dusty at times after sustained social efforts such as conferences or if you are sleep deprived.

As part of my research interest, I am aware that the transparency of language is just an illusion, yet it is a useful illusion that serves the purpose of getting psychic energy flowing. On the other side, I am also aware that a new language can provide different resources, extending your mind toward a variety of new original thoughts that would have been different in your native language. In fact, there is a degree in which linguistic opacity and creative originality can actually support each other: even if the new language keeps feeling like an “enemy”, in Agota Kristof’s personifying formula, this endemic and enemic language can create unpredictable forces (as Kristof’s or Samuel Beckett’s masterful trilogies of novels show).

But life is not just creativity, it is also a quite mundane everyday acquaintance with your self, and the self you get acquainted with changes as you change your language. This is probably why in the private practice of inner speech I rarely switch to English, unless for programmatic or intellectual thoughts during or about my work. This does not mean I don’t like my English way of thinking, quite the opposite. It would be, if not impossible, very hard now to go back to work and write in Italian. My working scaffolding processes are now structured in English, and when I am talking about my work with Italian friends I feel the acute awkwardness of translating (one of) my selves.

Let’s move to a concrete example of this double life. English syntax does not support subordinate clauses to the degree that Italian does. This means that either you speak and write paratactically, or your articles and emotions won’t be understood or will be rejected.  At best, you will be perceived as exotic or “continental”. At worse, you will be deemed wordy and convoluted. If friends will gradually accept or even appreciate your more “insubordinate” way of thinking, when you work you will have to bend to a paratactic succinctness (unless you reach a mastery of the second-language that allows you to test or force the limit of it without becoming incomprehensible). All this would be fine if thinking and language would not be so entangled, so that the former could be unaffected by the latter.

For good and for bad, however, there are as tight as fuel to combustion, or as a surfboard to a wave. So every time you go back to your parents’ house you see six bookshelves hosting a pile of carefully handmaiden surfboards, whose wearing signs now you barely understand (but each scratch brings you back vivid memories of a particular wave of thoughts and emotions). It also works, however, in the other direction. After a few weeks in Italy, I miss my English annotated books and notebooks, together with records, friends and my other self.

So, how can one go on without feeding a divided mind and self? I think the only answer is to feed insubordination and to believe into the possibility of mixing methods of thinking, ways of working and different modulations of language and feelings. As Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony, which gives the title to this new interdisciplinary agora, encapsulates, human consciousness is not a unity, but a constellation of clashing forces, voices, and multiple attractors. This is true of consciousness when taken individually, and becomes exponential when a consciousness is set in relation with other minds. Learning and living in a second-language adds neurological and experiential elements to this structural inner complexity of mind and self (or selves).

At the brain level, there are promising studies on bilingualism (see, e.g., Bialystock, Craik and Freedman 2007;  Alladi et al. 2013) showing how the brain in the long-term actually will reward the challenge of partitioning the mind into more than one language (e.g., by delaying the onset of dementia). Experientially, however, there is still a lot of work to be done to transform the silent struggle of second-language immigrants into a flourishing richness. This problem touches also the equally troubling, and possibly even more invisible, case of immigrants from same-language countries. That apparent sameness, in fact, is literally a cruel “false friend” that will tell you lies about how nothing happened when you moved from Australia, India or South Africa, whereas a lot is new under this missing sun.

Marco Bernini is an Assistant Professor of Cognitive Literature Studies at Durham University. His monograph Beckett and the Cognitive Method: Mind, Models and Exploratory Narratives will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

1 thought on “Insubordinate Lives: The Invisible Tension of a Second-Language

  1. Good talk and easy but he didn’t mention the kind of voice if it is the same inner voice or autonomous or not new voices? And how to diagnosis the multiple languages brain work with voices? Not only2, He said the dementia but in fact it will be a normal status of mind with similitudes between same subjects regardless the private case of every one. Example : if 2 multiple languages brain subjects are one male and one female. Or different ages or different PTSD or nationalities. .. the point is that the language phenomenon in brain has nothing to do with the history of the subjects in future diagnosis if it will continue,
    thanks very encouraging.

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