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Tongue-tied: On Native Lands and Foreign Tongues

I don’t have a native language. My mother tells me that as a two year-old, when my parents moved back to Istanbul from Tel Aviv where I was born, I spoke Turkish and sang in Hebrew. Soon after our return to Istanbul, the singing stopped and I spent a good 11 years as a monolingual child who only spoke Turkish.

The second big migration of my life, one I actually do remember was to San Diego, CA as an 8th grader. Despite a couple of years of English classes under my belt–which put me at a far better position than my little sister who was thrown in elementary school without knowing a word of English–I was far from being bilingual. I spent the first few months of school saying “what?” after anyone said anything to me. I am sure many people I encountered back then thought I had a hearing problem considering the amount of times I had people repeat themselves.

Eventually my favorite word fell out of use and I even began speaking to my mother in English when I got home from school. My sister and I spoke English when discussing the mundane occurrences of our American lives. But when I hid in my room, lonely and frustrated about (not)making friends, I cried in Turkish and when I wanted to feel at home, I listened to Turkish music. When my sister confided in me about her fears, she did so in our old language, reprimanding me “Türkçe Konuş!”, “Speak Turkish” if I were to reply to her in English.

Ironically, that same phrase, albeit unknown to us teenagers, had once been hurled at my grandparents in the streets of Istanbul for speaking Ladino, their own native language, as part of a campaign to intimidate non-Muslim minorities to become more “Turkish” in the 1930s.

Every summer we traveled home to Istanbul. With each visit I seemed to have fewer friends who used new slang words and expressions that made me feel foreign and out of place. People expressed their surprise to hear me speak Turkish like a native but how peculiar it was that I misused this expression or mispronounced that word.

One day my best friend came out with the devastating news: I had a slight but certainly detectable “Jewish” accent in Turkish. I didn’t want to be like my parents, who spoke their native language with an accent even though they had never lived outside of Turkey. How naïve I was to think I could be immune to this fate. Seeing my disappointment, my faithful friend tried to comfort me: it was just one letter that I mispronounced, a small tiny “e,” barely anything serious. I spent years trying to fix my “e” until I eventually succumbed to my misfortune: pencere, tencere, gelme gitme etme… anneeee!

But of course, the “e” was not my only problem. Having spent most of my adolescence and adulthood speaking, writing, and reading in English, my intellectual Turkish remained that of a teenager. On the one hand, I was told to never turn in a paper without having it checked by a native English speaker at my university’s writing center, on the other hand I wasn’t able to fully express myself in Turkish. As an aspiring writer, I was in a bind, lacking a language to call my own.

Apparently there is a term linguists use to describe my condition: first language attrition. It describes the situation where speakers of a second language, particularly migrants, gradually lose abilities in their native tongue. But I prefer to see my predicament as the linguistic manifestation of an ongoing identity “question” (to avoid using the dreaded cliché “identity crises”). After all, how is academic jargon going to explain that out-of-body feeling when I hear myself speak in one language and every word out of my mouth feels like that of a stranger.

In moments such as these, when I feel voiceless in every language, failing to find the right word in none, I think about the writers who exalt rather than lament their language “crises” like Sandra Cisneros, one of my favorite writers. Unapologetically, she sprinkles her poems and stories with Spanish words, some of them slang you can’t even find in the dictionary. I love it when she does that, as if she is telling me, “you can’t understand me, not completely!”

For the past seven years, I’ve been busy trying to master the language in which I once sang. Living and working in Israel, I had emails I wrote in Hebrew checked by my Israeli friends (or my good friend Google translate) to prevent yet another tease from my boss who found it so cute that I meant to say wait for me but wrote hit me. As if navigating two languages weren’t enough, I found myself going to Hebrew-English dictionaries to find the English equivalent of that one word I need which wouldn’t come to my psyche neither in Turkish nor English, but surprisingly in Hebrew.

They say that the language in which you dream (or count) is your true native tongue. Many people are surprised when I say that I have dreamt in all languages that I can speak. I even dreamt a few times in Spanish – a language that I never truly lived but one that always remained in a state of being learned. While I can’t say that Hebrew ever felt like “home” it became a part of my persona. The Tarzanish my sister and I speak these days is a mish-mash of Turkish and English, topped with Hebrew as spice. This search for words in one language and finding them in another, this lack of vocabulary—or its growth depending on how you look at it—doesn’t bother any more. Unlike that teenager who felt so ungrounded without a native tongue, I embrace my tied-tongue, all letters and sounds.

I’ll end this post with a poem by Sandra Cisneros, who never ceases to inspire me…


By Sandra Cisneros

Make love to me in Spanish.
Not with that other tongue.
I want you juntito a mi,
tender like the language
crooned to babies.
I want to be that
lullabied, mi bien
, that loved.

I want you inside
the mouth of my heart,
inside the harp of my wrists,
the sweet meat of the mango,
in the gold that dangles
from my ears and neck.

Say my name. Say it.
The way it’s supposed to be said.
I want to know that I knew you
even before I knew you.