To speak is to be. At least in my world. I’m a verbal processor and I swear I sometimes don’t know what I’m thinking until I speak it. In social terms, we often don’t feel we exist until we are heard and understood by the world around us.
Babies know this first. Of course they exist before they speak words we understand, before they share our language with us. But they are born as noise-making beings. They cry. They babble. They communicate. And their constant efforts to communicate pay off. We hear them, and validate their efforts, and they eventually learn our language and begin the process of “joining in”.
And what of Third Culture Kids? Language is one of our identity props, something I’ve written about before here, with Goffman as instigator of the concept. An identity prop is a “thing” – be that behavioural habit, physical object or personal characteristic, skill set or yes, language – that helps us communicate an identity more coherently. For example, if I am playing Hamlet on stage, at some point it’d help to have a skull to hand for the famous “Alas poor Yorick” scene that the play is known for. If I am trying to communicate that I’m “not from around here” and that I feel culturally French, it’d help if I had some identity props to hand to back up my claim. I need French books in my home, skills at French cuisine, some knowledge of France the country, and yes, some French language skills. After all, who grows up and spends part of their time in France and comes away without French?!
Well, lots of us.
Don’t get me wrong. Many Third Culture Kids grow up multilingual. Being able to speak the many languages of our host countries is often one of the markers by which we are invited to identity ourselves as TCKs. However, many of us did not leave our host countries with host country languages.
This happens for many reasons. One reason is that many of us attended English speaking international schools in our host countries, and local language contact may have been limited to a class we attended once or twice a week. Another reason is that, for those of us who were TCKs in international organisations with established expatriate communities, we might have encountered limited time and opportunity to connect with locals, thereby limiting how familiar with felt with local host languages. Or perhaps we experienced a host country language as our first, our mother-tongue, but subsequent moves meant we lost it.
We may also have felt reluctant to connect to the local language in the first place, perhaps inhibited by our observations of how our parents may have struggled, perhaps with the language or perhaps with the culture. It can be hard to want to invest in that which we perceive as stressing our loved ones. Or, we may simply have not felt gifted linguistically, and found it difficult to pick up multiple languages!
For those of us who lost languages or who never felt we had gained them, we can feel robbed of the prop we need to make our stories make sense to our audience. I often hear TCKs speak regret or shame about how they feel they lack a linguistic claim to a culture or identity that is nevertheless very significant to their story. I experienced this as a very young child, when classmates wouldn’t believe I lived in Africa because I was white. When they demanded I “speak African” to prove it, I couldn’t; I could speak no African language with any fluency that helped me to make sense to my peers. Others experience this as adults, when they feel the missed opportunities that fluency in youth could have benefited them with now, as well as wishing they had the language skills to “prop up” their claims to cultural affiliation with their host countries.
And what about our mother tongues? I mentioned above the sting that is felt when a host country language gifted itself to us from babyhood, only to be later lost – assumed to be an ‘extra’ rather than a main character on our identity stage. But what if the mother tongue all expect to hear fluently – our national language(s) – are the props that are deemed wanting by our audience?
A Korean TCK raised in English-speaking American schools may well find themselves criticised for their mother tongue expression in Korea. We can lose our languages due to a kind of ‘language imperialism’ that exists even in our international schools. And this can lead to our language skills, even in our mother tongue, being found wanting by our passport country peers, or even family member members. We can find ourselves speakers of many languages but feeling master of none. Even where our fluency is established, our accents can betray us as “not belonging”.
This can leave us feeling very vulnerable regarding some of the identities we lay claim to. Without the props to explain who we are, we can be left feeling like we simply don’t make sense, like we are somehow doing our identity “wrong”. This stings.
And so what can we do?
We can give ourselves permission speak despite the misinformed expectations of our audience. We can speak, haltingly perhaps, but nevertheless with insistence born of our conviction we have things to say.
We can give ourselves permission to speak to ourselves kindly, with grace, about our linguistic identity props. We can remind ourselves how we came to have the collection of languages and accents we do, and do so without blame or shame.
We can remind ourselves that the languages we lost are still out there. We can fill our ears with radio stations in that language, fill our bookshelves with grammar textbooks and our favourite children’s stories in these languages. We can create space in our lives for the longing for languages we love, even if we can’t claim them as our own.
To speak is to assert ourself onto a landscape. To be heard is to have our presence affirmed and acknowledged.
Can you hear your own story of language? What story are you speaking?
*Written with special thanks to a TCK who contributed to this conversation with me, and kindly read over early drafts.