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Using Your Native Tongue: A Reflection

“You sound arrogant and illiterate when you use so many English words in your Danish.” The comment was from a friend who, just like myself, is 100% Danish. Danish family, Danish upbringing, Danish everything. The only difference between him and me is that I moved abroad when I was 19 years old and today – at the age of 33 – am trilingual.

As this was a good friend, I wondered why the comment haunted me for weeks. It was harsh, indeed, but it was said with the best of intentions and came from a loving person. Was this about my own relationship to my mother tongue which I am expected to speak better than any other language, or about people’s perception of expats at a moment when I considered moving back home? In any case, it bothered me.

Mastering vs. Adapting?

Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist (1897-1941), argued that culture is embedded in language, and this culture will influence us and shine through when we use the language. In other words: language will shape our thoughts and in consequence who we are or (perhaps more accurately) how we come across. I wouldn’t go as far to say that I feel like different people when speaking different languages, but I recognize and acknowledge the fact that my co-existence with them is deeply rooted in personality and identity issues.

Biculturalism is another matter to take into consideration, and it refers to not only speaking another language but also comprehending the actual culture embedded in the language. Perhaps this really does shine through, and we adapt to the language rather than just learn it. An overly polite and well-considered English person, a passionate Italian, and a direct and outspoken Dane all find their place within us, showing different sides of us, and making us appear differently. Inclinations towards a certain culture could also explain a preference for speaking a certain language.

People are herd animals, and we thrive in groups of like-minded individuals. In these groups, there are certain codes of behavior we conform to. Being an expat is synonymous with many different things, but acquiring the skill of speaking a new language –at least to some extent – often comes with the experience. This could perhaps also explain our tendency to blending languages together: the desire to express how we see ourselves and to feel we belong.

What We Leave Behind When Expatriating

I’m not proud of admitting it, but I prefer speaking English or Italian; languages of countries in which I’ve spent 14 years of my life. I have wondered why that is, and the only explanation I could come up with is the simple fact that I haven’t exercised or developed my Danish since the age of 19. Alas, I have indeed spent time at home whenever I could, but it’s nothing compared to how much I’ve spent abroad.

I think back with horror to the slang expressions we used in high school and notice my friends’ bewilderment when I use them today. I can even hear how funny it sounds myself. Adding to the handicap, I also find I have no vocabulary - in 1999, ‘super’ and ‘as if’ used to be the universal answers to just about everything. The icing on the cake is my awful habit of cursing like a sailor, something my dad pointed out to me at the tender age of 11, tearing at his hair thinking about where I had picked that stuff up. Yes, language is a funny thing. At least I only do the last one in Danish.

The Golden Rule of Communication

So why do I throw all the English words into my spoken Danish, adding to an even more peculiar outcome? My friend made a correct observation – I use English words all the time. After thorough reflection, I came to the conclusion that it’s for two reasons: because it’s easy, and because it allows you not to feel like a linguistic retard. I would be delighted to concentrate on developing a rich and proper Danish one day, but it’s something that I will need some time to do. For the brief periods of time I spend in Denmark at the moment, my main aim is to be understood – preferably easily and quickly. Cutting a linguistic corner using foreign words isn’t admirable, I agree, but this is where a deeper, personal level must be considered. Feeling that your communication skills have developed with and reflect your age and achievements will give you a sense of being able to show the world who you are. Needless to say this feels good, and certainly better than speaking at a snail’s pace always looking for words and saying odd things all the time.

Misunderstandings Come in Many Forms

Unlike my Danish, I actually feel that English and Italian give me rich possibilities to express myself, and it’s a well-known fact that people are not always better in their first language. I feel home with these languages, and I feel like I am myself. I think most people living abroad can relate to feeling terribly annoyed about the lack of ability to express themselves because they didn’t master the language. This is actually no different to the feeling I’m describing – it’s just the other way around. There are definitely various reasons for using foreign words in a native phrase, most of which are definitely something other than simple arrogance. This was the reason my friend’s comment bothered me. Being misunderstood is never pleasant. It’s interesting to note here how making yourself understood doesn’t always have to do with speaking the same language, but that’s an all-together different discussion.

Bette Bondo is Danish and currently living in Shanghai (where the expat even speaks Mandarin). She has dedicated her life to trend forecasting, fashion design and developing the next generation of fashion talents – or at least, so far. She works in an international fashion school, and in her spare time enjoys reading and writing. You can find out more about her via email.

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