20050513

Language & the Plurality of the Self

My friend Fernando of Salamanca once told me, quoting someone, that el que habla dos idiomas pierde su alma--he who speaks two languages loses his soul. I don't remember the exact context...we were on the street somewhere, or in a smoky bar, or in his even smokier living room: the scenes of the many peripatetic dialogues I enjoyed with him over the course of a couple of years. Fernando himself, his soul quite intact, spoke only his native castellano. My one-time confessor, his remark contained, I think, both a smidgen of linguistic envy and a dollop of censorious comprehension of my divided state.

Taking the soul to be emblem and essence of the self, the loss of the soul that may fairly be said to accompany the acquisition of a second language is the acquisition, discovery, or recognition of an alternative self. and thence of the possibility of a multiplicity of alternative selves, in combination with a dawning and irreversible alienation from the context that defined the original self.

Having undergone some travails to become fluent in Spanish and at ease in Spain, I nonetheless, as an American and native English speaker, remained an outsider in Spain. In turn, my Spanishness sealed and certified my outsider status in America.

The discovery of the plurality and insurmountable alterity of the self, this loss of soul narrowly understood, does not require the acquisition of a second language, however. For this discovery, it is enough to become conscious of the fact that we already speak more than one language, that in fact we may speak as many different languages as there are contexts and interlocutors. And if there are any of us who somehow remain monolingual, it can only be from lack of circulation and go hand in hand with a general failure to comprehend (to take in). The loss of such a soul, of that monolingual singular self, is no cause for lament.