The linguistic challenge

One of the most difficult challenges I have to deal with in this project every day is linguistic. Most sources I am reading and trying to make sense of are in Polish. The language I have chosen to transmit this understanding is English. This could be a straightforward translation case between two languages were it not for some complicating factors. I juggle four languages on a daily basis: Polish, Portuguese, English and French. While my intimate understanding of each of them may provide me with some cognitive flexibility and a constellation of meanings that go unperceived by monolingual speakers, this same understanding also makes me painfully aware of my limitations in each, and frustrated at realizing that I am not able to communicate my thoughts adequately in any of them. L’ embarras du choix, some would remark. However, I know there is no such easy answer.

All the books my grandfather wrote, as well as his diaries and the family letters, are in Polish. He was, after all, Polish, like the family before and after him. While Polish is my mother tongue, the first language I listened to when I was born, the one I learnt at home and I still speak with my parents and brothers, I was never formally educated in it. I was born and have always lived in Brazil, so my schooling was done here, in Portuguese.

In Santos, where we lived, we had no contact with other families who spoke Polish. Polish was so much my mother tongue during my early childhood that I believed it belonged to our family exclusively. The realization that this was not true came one day when a visitor from Poland arrived and started talking to us in my…our language. I still remember the feeling of betrayal, as if the visitor had broken the family’s secret code. It also dawned on me that the place named Poland my parents always referred to in their conversations might actually exist.

My parents insisted their children use Polish when speaking to them. Whenever we said something in Portuguese, they would translate it into Polish and make us repeat. If we insisted on continuing in Portuguese, they would pretend not to understand. When we made a mistake, they would correct us and again have us repeat. They read to us in Polish at the bedside. Whenever they traveled, the postcards would come written in Polish, even though we had never been taught how to read it. However, I remember making the effort to decipher them and copy the beginnings and closings so as to reply, at least partly, in the same way: kochani, kochana mamusiu, całuję mocno…, using the language of the heart.

Now for the project, I am teaching myself to read Polish. I travel back in memory to those younger years, aided by a literacy far greater than I had then, yet I have to start at the very beginning: learning how to read. It is an odd experience to go through this process again, figuring out what is written, first by trying to read the syllables aloud, stumbling over the new alphabet and consonant system, hoping what I pronounce makes sense. I check if what I hear corresponds to anything I know, try to place it in the context and finally, if all else fails, I transcribe the paragraph (most documents I have are either manuscript or in print) and feed it to Google Translation, which gives me an approximate idea.

Fortunately, I acquired the grammar and much of the vocabulary painlessly by listening and speaking, so the reading is now a matter of understanding the conventions and getting used to the different registers. It takes time and practice but I’m spurred by having to meet my objective: uncover the data I find and render it into a language more accessible to the family and those who might be interested in the stories which will eventually emerge from the contents of the suitcase. It is also rewarding because I can feel the progress: I am reading more and more quickly. When I started about a month ago, I was reading almost syllable by syllable, then individual words at a time, several of them together, and now I can roughly skim two or three paragraphs for overall meaning but at this stage, not yet a whole page. I am confident I’ll improve further and that my trip to Poland in April will accelerate the process.

Having been educated in Portuguese from the age of 5, I also consider myself a native speaker of this language. It is the language of my native country, where I have always lived and the language to which I have been most exposed to. And yet, it is not the language I have chosen to read or write, nor the language I have chosen to bring up and educate my children. There are a number of reasons for this. The easiest one to explain is that Portuguese is pervasive in Brazil, no apparent effort is needed to acquire or use it. The most difficult explanation may have to do with cultural identity.

I have been exposed to English from very early. My parents mixed with an international crowd who used it as a means of communication, so the sound of it floated around. My grandparents and cousins lived in the US. When we visited them, English was there, on the radio, on television, in the streets. Then, there was regular school and language schools and certificates, surfing magazines, Agatha Christie, songs and films and finally, because I had had all this exposure in a country where teachers of English were scarce, I started to teach the language. Thus, I had to learn more about it and although I have never lived in an English-speaking country, English came to me easily, almost by osmosis, as if I had been soaked in it all my life. It has become my language of choice for reading and writing, the language in which I communicate with the world.

Although French is my fourth language, I started using it almost at the same time as the others. In kindergarten, to respect the hierarchical relations at the Catholic primary school I attended: the different nuns had to be called “ma soeur” (the waitresses, attendants and cleaners), “ma mère” (the teachers) and “notre mère” (the headmistress); then in the solemn and interminable Mass rituals, part in Latin and part in French: Dominus vobiscum; Et cum spiritu tuo… Je vous salue, Marie pleine de grâce ; Le Seigneur est avec vous. At secondary school, French came via its literature and grammar: through memorization of poems and passages, through the inexorable conjugation of verbs and placement of the accents: grave, aïgu and circonflexe followed by the daunting dictations; at university, for two years, through sociology, politics and anthropology.

When I met my husband, who is a French-speaking Belgian, I could understand him perfectly but could not utter a word. By interacting with his friends and family, some of the words I had successfully placed on the Scrabble boards came alive in conversations.  When my children were born, I chose to bring them up in this language so that they could communicate with the family in Europe. This was not an easy task – the structures, the words I possessed belonged to the academic and social register. Technology, cooking and books came to my aid. I learned to speak the ordinary, household language at the same time as my kids by singing them the songs from the tapes my mother in law would send from France, reading for them in French in the evening, preparing food and talking about it, and helping them with the homework when they went to the French school, where I also started working and have been teaching (English) for the past thirty years.

So do I have a native language? Which of them would it be? Is it the one based on my origin? Is it the one I know best or the one I use most? Is it the one I identify with most? Is it the one others identify me with? How do I best process my thoughts? How does one frame and influence the other? What language will my grandchildren speak? Does it all matter and why, if it does? These are some of the questions that have been coming up while I teach myself to read Polish.




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