How much does language really matter? A lot, in some ways – and not at all in others. In the very first months at the international high school I attended, I briefly dated a Colombian boy. Neither of us had much experience, and it was all nervous, trembling excitement combined with hormones and living away from home for the first time. Our adolescent emotions spiked and dropped like crazy, and in the midst of all that confusion I was the last person in the world to know what the hell I actually wanted. He didn’t speak much English yet, and my Spanish was ok, but we thought it was all we needed. The language of love conquers and all that. We would laugh at each other’s accents and found many ways to occupy our time that didn’t involve talking. But of course, that can’t last very long. After about a month I realized we never had real conversations, didn’t actually understand each other as people, and were on completely different pages about what our relationship was going to be like. So with all the aforementioned drama I broke it off and took away what I considered a valuable lesson: I promised myself I’d never try to date someone again who didn’t share my native language.
No matter how fluent you become in another language, I’m convinced that there is a certain level of linguistic intimacy that only native speakers can share. The ability to play with words, toy with infinite shades of meaning that arise from the way you construct a sentence, the vocabulary you choose to adorn it with. It’s the same way you can never truly enjoy a book, I mean sit back and get into it and let your imagination run away, in a foreign language. Banter. Poetry. They also say that different languages express different worldviews; that the way a language molds nebulous thoughts into coherent phrases actually changes the way you think and conceive of reality. Something I’ve noticed in myself is that my personality changes slightly when I move from English to Spanish. In English I’m a little quiet at first, preferring to listen before I express my opinion, often not knowing what to say and wishing I was more eloquent. In Spanish I become more outgoing, bolder, joking and interrupting in the necessary ways to participate in an Argentine conversation. Despite the fact that my vocabulary is of course smaller and my grasp of the language slipperier, I find the confidence to say whatever’s on my mind. Maybe part of this change arises from the worldview theory, but I actually think it’s a combination of two factors: first, a survival strategy for living in language not your own. If you show fear you’re done for. If you stop to think about whether you can use that word, that grammatical construct, you’ve lost the conversation. If you want to say anything you’ve got to say everything you can think of. The second factor is the blissful obliviousness to hints and implications of the non-native speaker. You’re kind of in a happy bubble that makes self-doubt impossible because you don’t even know the meaning of that authentic-sounding word you just threw in there, much less its emotional implications toward whoever you’re talking to. I sort of like that freedom. But just as much, I hate never being able to say exactly what I wanted to, often having to circle around an idea with overly long descriptions for lack of the right words. It’s not the simple interactions that are the problem, (“I’ll have three meat empanadas, please”) but the profound conversations. Which is why at the age of 18 I swore off trying to have a relationship across the language barrier.
Obviously it didn’t last. But it took me a while to come around, and it’s still a daily struggle, a daily source of worrying that at one point or another, it will just get too hard. I changed my mind because I realized that with the right person, it’s not only possible, but worth it. If you find that spark of connection between two people, whether friends or lovers, not in words but in a manner of being, in a communication of the soul (rare enough already), then the hardest part is over; everything else is an obstacle that can be overcome. And while the overcoming is exhausting, it also keeps things quite interesting. Ironically enough, in such a fast-paced world, speaking another language with someone, or letting them speak to you in yours, slows things down enough to really listen, to really try to understand, to pay attention in many ways to cues that are not only spoken. I used to worry that I couldn’t speak fast and joke with my boyfriend the way he could with his friends, until he told me that on the contrary, with me he loved the incredible tranquility of our slightly slower conversations. The constant challenge makes it more interesting, funnier, crazier – but also much, much more frustrating and prone to misunderstanding when relationships are hard enough as they are. I often wonder if the language that two people speak in leads to a power dynamic between them. It seems logical that whoever gets to speak in their own native language has got the upper hand, right? Or is it the one who’s bilingual, because they have access to more roads of communication? Can you have a truly equal relationship if one of you must constantly live in the other’s world? I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a couple who, not sharing a word in their native languages, conduct their relationship in a third common one, though at this international school I witnessed several such perfectly happy pairs. So as romantic and absurd as it sounds, there must be something that can be shared on a profound level for which no words are necessary, and that sort of deep, unspoken understanding is what couples work their entire lives to achieve, multilingual or not.
But before reaching relationship nirvana, comes a lot of feeling silly and child-like, experimenting with a hundred different ways to communicate, whose successes are as numerous as the failures. With the novio, in our determination to practice the language of the other, we often find ourselves having ridiculous conversations in two languages at once, sometimes without even noticing. But aside from that, we have a language we make love in, a language we fight in, and a language we talk about the weather in. I think we laugh equally in both.