Sunday, September 16, 2012

Language and identity

After living in Oslo and speaking Norwegian daily for over twenty years, I have finally begun to speak English again. I try to do so as often as possible. Not that I haven’t spoken English at times or when I struggled to find the Norwegian words; I just didn’t use my mother tongue very much during these years. Now I do. Why is this important to me now after so many years? One of the reasons was that I felt I was losing my identity as an American, because English is my mother tongue and when I speak Norwegian, I no longer feel American. I don’t feel Norwegian either when I speak Norwegian; perhaps I just felt neutral, and for many years, that was quite alright. Feeling American, identifying myself as American—I was not conscious of these feelings when I first moved here. In fact, it was fine to think and speak in Norwegian, even desirable, because unless you learn the language of the country you live in, you can never fully participate in its social or work life. I am fluent in Norwegian; I even write poetry in Norwegian. In fact, I like to do that, because I feel like I am another persona when I write in Norwegian, and as a writer, that’s both exhilarating and adventurous. I’ve even written a poem about that aspect—about ‘hiding’ behind the safety of a language that is not your own. But the older I get and the longer I live here, the more I want to use my mother tongue; perhaps so I don’t forget it, but also because I feel that I can state my thoughts and opinions more clearly in English than I can in Norwegian. I felt the opposite to be true a decade ago. What changed? I am not sure. Perhaps the experience of sometimes being ignored or not taken seriously in work and social circles, despite my fluency in Norwegian, changed my mind about how to approach specific experiences. Perhaps I thought, if I cannot make myself clear or ‘known’ in Norwegian, there is no point in using this language as my main language to communicate in this country. I can just as well use English, and at present, I feel it is necessary to do so, to communicate who I am at this point in time. The use of English guarantees that people will listen to you and try to understand you.

I register that people have different reactions to my talking English. My husband speaks English back to me unless he needs to really express himself, and then he goes over to Norwegian. But we have mostly communicated through the years using a blend of Norwegian and English that I call Norglish. I find that most of my Norwegian colleagues, with one exception, will speak to or answer me in Norwegian. Among my friends, it varies. Norwegian friends will speak Norwegian with me; non-Norwegian friends will speak English with me, even though we normally communicate in Norwegian. I find that using English is freeing for me; there are parts of me that have been released. It is as though I am allowed to be myself again. I don’t mean that I have not been myself these past twenty years; just that English puts me in touch with the core part of myself, and as I get older, that core part of myself wants to make itself better known. It’s not just about being or feeling American; it’s mostly about reclaiming me and my identity as a woman in 2012, living abroad, an expat, working in science, with one foot in Europe and one in America. I’m guessing that it is the core part of me that is trying to come to terms with all of these experiences—how to piece them all together--and I’m guessing that it is the core part of me that will be having much more to say as the years move on. I’m happy about that.

No comments:

Post a Comment