Sitting on the plastic chairs of Pizza Express in October 2019, I was talking with my mum. She had come to visit me four weeks into my first term of university, and although I only admit it now, I was struggling. The flurry of people. Potential friendships. Housemates. Extracurriculars. The dislocation of being uprooted and placed in a new city without a second thought.
A conversation with my mum was exactly what I needed in that moment. What struck me the most was not necessarily what we said, but how we said it. Speaking Russian again, and feeling the familiar linguistic contours roll off my tongue was so powerful. The manic world of Freshers’ week is about meeting new people and trying to get them to like and understand you. Actively denying others that ability to understand what I was saying, instead of being desperate for them to listen, felt like a physical barrier of safety. Like part of my identity was untouchable. Language itself provided solace.
This hasn’t always been the case though. I see myself as ambiguously bilingual. Russian was the first language I spoke. But I learned English throughout primary school, and it quickly supplanted Russian as my dominant mode of expression. Moreover, I became an avid reader and writer – although this meant I pronounced common words incorrectly, having learned them through reading rather than listening, it sparked a lifetime love of words.
“Speaking Russian again, and feeling the familiar linguistic contours roll off my tongue was so powerful.”
This increasingly came at the expense of my Russian language skills. Faced with Slavic vowels and consonants, my English tongue felt thick and unwieldy, irrevocably tainted by nineteen years of life in the UK, with no extended family beyond my parents. Words I knew naturally in English were met with a mental blank in Russian. Even though I knew that I’d instantly understand if I heard someone else say them.
I always felt a kind of shame surrounding this, beyond the natural frustration of feeling stripped of complete fluency and deftness of expression. I’d always associated ‘imposter syndrome’ with careers or education, but it wormed its way into my relationship with language too. I knew enough to satiate the curiosity of strangers, but my syntax would be punctuated by grammatical mistakes for anyone who knew enough to realise.
The pervasive sense of not feeling good enough also affected my ability to improve. I felt an inexplicable depth of emotion about my flawed bilingualism, and it tugged at the very core of who I felt I was. I wanted uncomplicated feeling of belonging, so something as banal as creating a Quizlet set for my mother tongue felt like a confession of failure.
One unexpected advantage of lockdown and being forced to move back in with my parents was renewed exposure to Russian, something I had feared losing completely at university. This wasn’t necessarily intentional, or particularly related to my sense of being an imposter-bilingual, but rather the natural consequence of moving back. I’d spend an evening watching an old Russian film with my mum; and I picked up a Russian book instead of an English one. Lack of timely news coverage in English led me to independent Russian-language news outlets. And gradually, my exposure to the Cyrillic alphabet increased, in a way that I don’t think could have happened without the forced rupture of the pandemic.
“I’d always associated ‘imposter syndrome’ with careers or education, but it wormed its way into my relationship with language too.”
This helped to improve my language skills, but it wasn’t the biggest change in my relationship with bilingualism. I also sought out articles surrounding language acquisition and bilingualism, which not only explained the strength of emotion I always felt related to my first language, but also reconfigured the way I felt about English. English had always been my ‘side’ language; the negative space surrounding the jagged edges of my emotions towards my first, and I had never really given it much thought. However, I came across to believe that a second language, divorced from the intense emotions and childhood experiences of your mother language, provides us with the freedom to express how we truly think and feel.
As someone who has always found comfort within the written word, this idea was hugely powerful. I am able to reconcile my still somewhat problematic relationship with my first language by embracing the flexibility and detachment offered by the second. I couldn’t have written this article in Russian. But by doing so in English, I can bring the formerly painful and disparate fragments of my linguistic identity together.
“I couldn’t have written this article in Russian, but by doing so in English, I can bring the formerly painful and disparate fragments of my linguistic identity together.”
Language is intimately connected with perceptions of place, home, and identity. Migration and diaspora mean that this relationship is not uncomplicated, but that doesn’t necessarily make it problematic. For many years, the word ‘home’ summoned a specific image of leaves dancing on the wall of my grandparents’ apartment in Moscow. But ‘home’ doesn’t have to be a place, or even a person. As I realised in Pizza Express, it can also be words themselves.
Once, I asked my mum what it was like coming to the UK for the first time. «Как туман», she said, because of the unfamiliarity of the language. Like fog. This myopia and sense of having to feel with your hands to muddle through is something that I used to resent about my relationship with Russian. But I can now acknowledge the advantages that my bilingualism affords. Not necessarily the classic ones – communication, travelling – but rather a clarity and sharpness of vision brought by a second language. Divorced from the emotion of the first. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Russian, but that doesn’t feel like an admission of failure anymore. It feels like an opportunity.
Leeza is a history undergraduate and writer interested in arts, culture, and politics. @leeza_i
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