I speak, therefore I am?
On my way to language and identity
It takes me ten minutes to walk home from school. I cross the park, letting the drying leaves crunch beneath my feet. A few folks make some hustle and bustle in my little town in the flat country in south-central Bulgaria. It all started when I was seven. Until then, I hadn’t known a single letter of the alphabet. Soon after, it happened at once. School is now fantastic because I, a skinny kid, can stand up for myself not with muscles but with math, chemistry, and languages.
One day, as I walk by the library, a small billboard ad stops me. Suddenly, my heartbeat picks up speed. Then, everything else goes quickly, too. That thirteen-year-old boy, me, rushes to his mother and pleads:
“Mom! Mom! Do you know what I saw? Can I have 25 bucks for a German class? Please!”
My mother gives me the money and smiles while tears stream down my cheeks.
Many decades later, a lighthearted summer day. This time, I walk through Berlin’s Tempelhof Field, a former airport far more extensive than my little town’s park. Listening to Samara Bay’s podcast, “Permission to speak,” I wonder about that one question swirling around in my head like bees around a hive.
“Am I the same person in every language I speak?” I inquire, letting my senses wander. “Why do most people struggle with learning languages as they work hard?” As though witnessing two parallel movie scenes, while in the small window pinned to the corner, the boy gets the money for the German class, the bigger picture zooms in on the time when Berlin was still divided into East and West. As if carried away by a mystical cloud, discovering the elegance of the German language was my destiny as I sought to live in a new world. At the time, scarcely attainable. Yet, I meticulously sketched the wish in a painting hammered into my mind as if the completion was one foot away. Then later, it arose into sureness to be my tomorrow, my life. For many, a little kid’s fantasy, for that boy’s head, a rough draft of a journey into a long-cherished choice.
Another identity? While this chapter of my life was still non-written fiction, I was heading toward an invisible but tangible finish line. I put it to work for years, and my dreams merged with reality. Now, my universe, back then out of this world!
“Am I the same person in every language I speak?” I keep seeking an ultimate answer. “Does my identity change?” From not knowing a single letter at the age of seven to absorbing my mother tongue’s alphabet in a few weeks, I was writing, reading, counting, doing math while dreaming of the uncharted. Later, as German flooded my ears, a hidden bell rang. Then, like a lightning flash coming out of a cloud, the sounds illuminated my desire to belong to the unknown, still not apprehending why. The small billboard ad at the community center looks like the what, smoothing the road for something bigger than me – the why.
That hidden bell must have been the secret why I knew I was not barking up the wrong tree entering the next chapter of my life. Then I’m decoding another why. Next, as the textbook protagonists on the first day of my German class, Monika and Uwe, jumped into my mind, I could not let go of the imagination of belonging to their world. Consequently, today, I have been part of it for decades and cannot relate to the idea of being an immigrant, never mind distinguished as having an immigrant background.
Quite the reverse, I still hear a phrase overheard on the radio saying, “homeland is the place you find fulfillment,” and, I even would add, in being yourself. That is why I did not resonate with the idea that, as an immigrant, I come to a country that is not my home. I brought my home with me and trusted my heart. I was not out of place. Yes, the novel society essentially put many colors on me. Yet, for me, the primary nutrient for putting roots into another identity is language. For a while, the change remained unnoticed. But the hidden bell, my invisible friend, apparently didn’t abandon me. Instead, I would binge-read books and chat with others, readily falling into a German persona as if taken for granted. In retrospect, the almost uncanny sense of not being a stranger, and the unrecognized accent adjustment, appear miraculous. It is as though my second language merged into my first, and my dual identity had taken over. Finally, I realized that surrendering to language and environment was committing to an authentic being. We are often lost in pictures others paint for us, marking our place there. However, as painters ourselves, we can layer our colors over time as the texture builds up and our inner truth emerges. The less foreign you see yourself, the less foreign others will perceive you to be.
The sound of the hidden bell gave me a voice that allied me with the German language. Saturating my painting with colors offered me belonging and closeness. I will have missed that bell and not seen those colors for years when it came to English. As if whirled by the wind, walking on Tempelhof Field, more memories flashed through my mind, lifting the curtains behind me. My simple finding enlightened me. Like sitting on the same train, commuting to the same place, and staring at the same picture, we do not question how we are used to grammar and spelling as if the ultimate solution for learning a new language. But does this method work well enough?
The traditional path indeed prevents us from belonging to another language. We remain attached to the old way at the expense of catching that new language’s soul that will take us to hidden places of our being. By driving on the old road, we let the letters remain indistinguishable from our mother tongue. Whenever we try to convert our thoughts directly into the other language, we miss out on embracing its unique melody. Yes, translating can be helpful while embarking on the journey. But, what if we renewed the road markings as if we were reborn into another language? Is that not equal to jumping into a completely new identity?
Can the fact that we rarely hear the hidden bell account for our lack of improvement in language? Should it be called improving at all or diving into a concealed part of us? Unbeknown to me, luckily, that awareness happened more for me, less to me, a long time ago. An invisible layer in my mind adapted the magic of language to fit my identity. It surprises me now how ordinary and natural my dive into German was. It also astonishes me how strange it would have looked, had I commuted on that same train to the same place without casting doubt on it. It took me an eternity to realize how life-changing it was, even if it was chaos-driven and intuitive.
If I were to turn my discoveries into a recipe for all, I would ask that you imagine another language as entering the same house through a new door. Next, you are approaching a delicious dish on the stove, and you can smell its fresh and new flavors. They will gradually add to your senses. Knowing the house is your home regardless of the entry, language will be the spice giving a unique taste to the world. You will become part of it without the anxiety of smelling something strange. Looking back at my past self, I see how intertwined all that inner peculiarity and language were. They naturally performed the painting, adding the colors needed. Now I get it. My identity had taken shape behind my back, accommodating the language as a whole new chapter of being.
If my identity shift was the link between my desire to belong and language, going down the rabbit hole must have been the Accent’s way, the road to connecting the last dots of my language’s mystery. As I literally bumped into the Accent’s Way inventor Hadar Shemesh, a maverick American English accent coach, I finally saw the lights illuminating the previously refreshed road markings. Then, painting the holistic picture of language and doing the physical work, I could embody the natural sounds and turn them into pronunciation. It was like a marvel! Intuition and consistency filled the inside voice, and again, another unique relationship with the world was born. Hadar’s philosophy opened my eyes. No doubt, spelling and writing still enriched the painting. Yet, the prosody, the core, and the soul of English instilled in me an image of language attached to identity.
Is language an entry to another identity? Is that door invisible to us while we, unaware of it, try to enter the house through the wall? I had never been happier. Also, after the next invisible gate opened, German was reborn into English. I managed to shake off the shackles, and it was pure liberation! After experiencing all that life had to offer, the circle closed. As I look behind me, I see the roads, and the large house with the many doors painted with the color of language and identity. You can enter the imaginary place through the door of your choice and inhale all the flavors surrounding the stove. You hold your choice in your hands, and all the keys are in your pocket. You only need to pick the proper one, and the door will open up.
After all, life uncovered the missing pieces in my identity-and-language jigsaw puzzle, empowering me with self-trust and greater love for connection. Walking that Sunday morning, still listening to Samara Bay’s podcast “Permission to speak,” and hearing a fascinating quote by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist, I was hooked. It goes, “…language is a marvel, our most remarkable capacity. A few slight movements of tongue, teeth, and lips, and I can give you a new idea, whisk you somewhere else, or give you goosebumps. Any thought a human could think, and it would seem, can be shared on a puff of air.”
Yet, how can that “puff of air” impact our identity, affect us when we speak more than one language? Is it merely technical stuff? My answer is no, not at all. It is also a part of identity, a part of our set of keys. With hindsight, I realized that I had been, in a way, reidentifying, even reinventing myself as a longing human being. After further reflection on never feeling foreign in a country different from my birthplace, adding a second beloved language must have solidified that new identity. Can I call it adopted? Can I link German or English to it as my “other-identity” languages – for the lack of a better term – whereas my mother tongue remains my mother tongue? It is therefore not necessary to deny your roots. At the same time, you can allow yourself to be curious about your true self, entering the imaginary house through the door you choose.
The idea that language plays an influential role in defining identity emerged again when I began intensive communication in English. Another time, I had missed the forest for the trees. Although I sought fluency and worked hard to master English, a hidden part kept me from gaining confidence until I realized that linguistic expression is also related to our inner longings. The American Accent unknowingly met my desire for a connection between persona and articulation. This bond is undoubtedly another urge for identity.
You could ask: what is he talking about? Paintings, colors, flavors, one house, the world, many doors, a set of keys, road markings. We can only have one identity, regardless of the number of languages we speak. Yes, human beings are unique. I do not assert that my conclusion is the only valid one. However, I believe some of these patterns are present in you as well. You may pay attention and ask yourself about the link between speaking a second or third language and the inner voice you previously might not have been aware of. How do you feel seeing that inner voice as part of your identity? Could you visualize slipping into another persona’s role, applying the target language smoothly, and adapting your identity at short notice? As I cannot read others’ brains, I found my answer, but I still wonder whether migration, social environment, and self-determination define how we perceive our new languages. Does a country different from our birthplace mold our behavior? To identify with a new language, do we even need to live in a foreign country?
I would like to know whether language influences our values. Still, it affects identity if we consciously or unconsciously “merge” ourselves with the landscape around us communicating with others. Yet, what does yourself mean? Does yourself equal identity? In daring to answer the question, I discovered a phenomenon, unbeknownst to me, until recognizing it. Remember that thirteen-year-old boy? Watching movies with subtitles and being immediately mesmerized by the sound of German, I became enchanted with the country and its language. I developed a solid connection to a place I could not dream of living in at that time. Fortunately, a couple of years later, Germany became my new home, and I adopted German as my dominant language, the term I invented to understand better. Wishing I had had one, I didn’t follow a specific language improvement program but instead immersed myself in the surrounding environment and identified with it. So I gave homeland a broader meaning. Tracing all those invisible doors made me connect with another part of my being and perfect my language skills to enhance my natural belonging.
I have been seeking insights into language and identity for most of my life. They may even be more profound than the surface, forcing us to venture further out to sea for a deeper dive. Bringing to light multiple layers of being and exploring where language is embedded will bring up many other questions. My quest to uncover more of the truth will continue. We will undoubtedly not stop striving to reach out to the world to understand better who we are.
Dr. Manol Roussev is an enthusiastic trilingual mesmerized by how intertwined language and identity are. Manol is also an author of scientific articles and co-authored a book. While sailing to unexplored genre shores, he discovered inspiration for his debut short story, “Aloha”, published in The Dillydoun Review. By seeking to share insights and stir readers’ reflection on purpose and being, he loves hearing from you here: firstname.lastname@example.org