I have to laugh sometimes when, in one sentence, my daughter goes from English to German and back again, just like all her polyglot friends, lucky devils that they are.
In my novel there are two main characters who use the English language in completely different ways. It’s great fun (for me!) to switch from one to the other, and while it took time to develop their styles to my (their?) satisfaction, I can now slip easily from one to the other. It’s like dressing up when I was a child, that feeling of becoming someone else and understanding implicitly that how I spoke and the words I used were an important part of my costume.
Which has me thinking about how we use language and how much we rely on this ability to use it. If you’ve ever changed countries then you’ll be familiar with that feeling of discomfit that comes from not understanding everything that is being said. Suddenly tiny children seem like geniuses because they can speak Spanish and you’re struggling to say hello.
Although it’s not just foreign languages. When we moved from Australia to the UK it was the tiny, subtle changes that were the most disconcerting, leaving us, at times, red-faced because we’d unknowingly use an entirely inappropriate word (thongs, anyone??), and other times wondering at how the same language could be used in such different ways.
And now we live in Switzerland, where the subtleties of the German language completely pass me by and I know I sound like an overly formal robot when I try to speak it. And because the English speakers here come from many different countries, I still find myself thinking about which words to use because my English might be different to that of the listener.
And my daughter? She’ll switches seamlessly from German to English but I struggle not to smile when I hear her use a word in English that, while correct, would not pass muster in an Australian school playground, the poor thing.
Our ability to communicate is easy to take for granted, until you realise that we’re not just products of our upbringing, but also of our language, whatever that might be.