Yesterday as I was driving my daughter to ballet, I put on some music by Francis Cabrel, which I hadn’t heard in a while. The French lyrics, the inflection, the flow of the phrases and the cadence of the words wove through me, lifting me up out of the car of suburbia and away from tantrum child.
I can’t remember what it’s like to speak only one language. In fact, I want to learn more languages because each one adds a new layer, a new dimension. Languages not only teach us to see the world differently but because they are structured in various ways, they actually shape our thoughts and perceptions.
In Indonesian the verb alone does not mark tense. You need to insert another word to indicate whether the action happened in the past or will happen in the future. In Turkish you need to include how you acquired the information in the verb: the form of the verb changes depending on whether you saw the action or read about it.
Indeed having another language not only gives us a second soul and an inner belonging but it opens up connections.
So when I asked trilingual poet Merlinda Bobis at the Sydney Writers’ Festival how much language affects her sense of belonging I could relate to her eloquent answer. Bobis, who was raised in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, is also a performing artist whose voice transcends the limitations of words.
”It’s where my body goes. I feel that when I speak and write in my original tongue my body changes, everything changes, it’s sensory, even my posture changes and I feel that its still nice to go back to that.
”For all my books in English my body decides in my first heart. Many of us can relate to that because there are many sensations, many feelings that can never be translated to that second language.”
Merlinda Bobis’s latest novel is Fish-Hair Woman, Spinifex Press and Anvil Publishing