Languages and their significance. A personal story

I recently read a bloggers comment on how he wished he could learn and speak all languages. His appreciation for linguistic expression and his unprejudiced and progressive desire to know all forms of communication was inspiring. Although I too have a passion for languages, I find my interpretation of language to be partial and heavily biased.  For me some languages are infused with memories, experiences and emotions, positive or negative that have transformed their significance into something much more powerful.

Today I visited two blogs. One of them was Italian and the other French. Despite my inability to understand the content, I was mesmerized by the beauty I perceived on the screen. I have admired French language for as long as I remember. I have worshipped it from afar, as an unattainable measure of linguistic beauty, in music, movies or the rare opportunity to be around French speakers.

The elevated status that French language holds for me has to do in part with its inherent beauty. I recently learned the term essentialism that refers to appreciation of something, based on its essence and not a superficial impression. No doubt, French is a very beautiful language in its essence. It is subtle, passionate and seductive, with the melodic rhythm of a sonnet that captures the attention from beginning, to the very end and resonates somewhere deep within the soul. I remember when I traveled across Europe, as soon as I stepped out of the Italian train in the French riviera, I was starstruck by the ordinary people speaking French.

My admiration for all things French also has to do with my childhood memories. I grew up reading French literature including works of masters such as Roman Rolland, Victor Hugo, Gautier, Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas, and Albert Camus and several accounts about my favorite emperor, Napoleon. This was courtesy of my mother’s library. Another early memory that is linked to a fuzzy and happy childhood comes from when I attended a daycare center run by a French woman in our town. I remember very little from that time. My mother tells me how we were taught to walz (we were 3 and 4 year old children!) and to sing French songs. One thing I do remember is how to sing Frère Jacques, a song that has sentimental value indeed.

Then there is French food, cheese, wine, my all time favorite the baguette. For reasons that can be traced as far back as my very first memories to the cheese I like to spread on my baguette, I love all things French!

But that is not all I have to say about languages. I speak three languages, Farsi is my mother tongue as is Azeri and they are very important parts of who I am, how I think and how I express myself. American English, which was acquired later is a part of my adult life. I am comfortable with English and although I have far less fluency and eloquence than what I desire, I find myself thinking and even dreaming English. It too has become a part of me. I never thought of English as beautiful, or not. English for lack of a better term feels neutral.

There are some languages that I find unpleasant. I used the term “unpleasant”, to emphasize the subjective nature of my assessment. The one that comes to mind is Arabic. I don’t recall every liking this language. I remember hearing the langue, I recall not liking it. I am not certain that this dislike was entirely my own opinion and not that of others around me. My mother, for example, did not like Arabic. Considering all the political and religious changes Iran went through during my childhood, Arabic became more than a language. It stood for religion and delivered religious oppression, eliminating many freedoms including women’s rights. It became the authoritarian language of war and death.

In the early years of the Islamic revolution, music was banned in Iran and the only acceptable form of music was Quran verses or other religions songs mostly in Arabic. A few days ago I listened to a program on NPR about the country of Mali and its recent change to an oppressive religions government after the imposition of the Sharia law. They talked about the recent ban on all forms of music other than religions verses. A French-speaking musician and rapper performed a beautiful song in French, showing signs of resistance and risking persecution. I was instantaneously transported back to my childhood in Iran, to when my taking piano lessons, had it been found out, would have been considered criminal and resulted in the persecution of my family.

In school we were taught Arabic and Quran since the 6th Grade.  I was taught this language for 7 years ad I have forgotten it all, unable to say a simple hello in Arabic. I used to blame my inability to speak Arabic to the poor methods used in teaching the language but I now believe the reasons run deeper. Perhaps my refusal to retain what was learned and in fact passed during all my examinations, was a conscious or unconscious act of rebellion and defiance.

Language serves us in more ways than communication. It holds powers, good and bad, depending on how it is used and it can illicit powerful emotional responses. I strive to understand the connection between these emotional associations, as they relate to my own response to language, and that of others. Perhaps there is a way disrupt previously formed associates and from new healthier healthier connections with language and to use It mindfully. Perhaps positive association with a particular language can expedite the learning process.


One thought on “Languages and their significance. A personal story

  1. Language is so very important. It’s the only way we have to communicate! And you have gone farther than most in the effort to broaden your ability to do so by learning three!

    This is a very admirable achievement.

    The memories of your childhood, which you here put down in words, tell much more of iran than one is ever likely to learn from the “language” of american media or education.

    You have used language well.

    I think perhaps it’s not so much languages per se that have powers for good or ill, but more the words that are chosen and the way in which they are spoken.

    It’s not what you say, but how you say it. So, it is the speaker who chooses whether to use language for better or worse; to promote understanding or discord.

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