Friday, March 7, 2014

Bilingualism and the body

There's been a lot of great research in the news lately about bilingualism and the brain, but I wonder if anyone has explored the idea of bilingualism and the body. That is, how does acquiring another language and/or living in multiple languages actually impact our physical selves?

Because this is a personal reflection and not a research paper, I am going to -for now- resist the urge to open up an academic search engine and look for articles on this topic. I am, however, going to start out with some anecdotes from my own research, specifically, the insightful comments of two bilingual teenagers on the subject of what it means to be bilingual.  

A few years ago, I worked with an 8th grade boy from Mexico who had been living in the US for about two years. This student described learning another language as being born again: "No sé, es muy difícil, como… es como si estuviera volviendo a nacer porque es otro idioma" (I don't know, it's very difficult, like… it's like being born again because it's another language). 

Being born again? That would obviously affect your entire self -mind and body. In this view, acculturating and living in a new language entails becoming a completely new person. Obviously language and identity are strongly connected. I remember struggling with this on earlier visits abroad: Was I a different person when I was speaking Spanish? Eventually, these disparate identities become integrated to some extent… at least that is my theory.   

Another great language-body reference regarding bilingualism comes from a 10th grader, also of Mexican heritage. He stated, "English, if you learn it and then, after that you like, handle it, you have it good, like, on your hands". 

Hmmm… to have a language on/in your hands. That is so interesting! It also relates to a conference presentation I saw a couple years ago. Although I can't recall who gave talk or where they were from, I remember that, in their research, they were asking bilingual people, "What is the language in your heart? What is the language in your head? What language is in your hands?" The implications, of course, have to do with the use and context of our language practices. What language/s do we speak in personal, intimate situations? What language/s do we speak for work or professional purposes? What about daily interactions on the street?  

So, from these two inspiring students, and my own experiences over the past few days in Italy, I had a brainstorm about a new way to define "bilingual" that involves the whole self. It's something like this: bilingual is when the language on the inside matches the language on the outside: when your inner voice matches your outer voice. 

I am thinking this because, as I go through my day in Italy, I try to think in Italian. However, I lack so many words. I can't make my minute-by-minute decisions, create my mental to-do list, or evaluate what I'm seeing, in 100% Italian. English and Spanish words pop into my mental flow; the interrupt my inner voice. Then, I stop to get a slice of pizza, and the my outer voice has to be Italian. The point is, here in Italy, my inner voice does not yet match my outer voice. 

What effect does this have on the body? It is tiring! I am constantly making an effort to understand and speak. Culturally, I am in hyper-observation mode, watching people and trying to figure out all sorts of things: how to validate my train ticket, how to cross the street safely, how to get the trash into those giant bins on the street. 

This is how language and culture affect the body. You watch, listen, learn… yesterday, my colleague asked if I got to "exercise" my Italian with her student. Right! "Esercitare" = "to practice", in Italian, and yes, it is an exercise, mental and physical! But it is worth it. Once I really know Italian, "have it on my hands", have it "in my heart" (it sort of already is), my inner voice will match my outer voice and, linguistically at least, I will be born again!   

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I remember visiting Italy, and although I don't know Italian, I was hosted by an Italian speaking family, and we all had a wonderful time communicating. It was fun, and it was a full-body experience, like playing charades! Also, I remember the experience of walking the streets and biking everywhere as visceral. So, yes, my whole body was involved. Great food for thought.