Life “Al Revés” and Speaking in Tongues

bilingual bilingualism espanolita minority language


Some parts of my life feel al revés (backwards or inside out).

No, I’m not going back in time nor am I coming undone. But, sometimes I’m Audrey, and sometimes yo soy españolita. 

One of the most fascinating parts of language to me is how our use of it shapes who we are. Our identity.

Our words don’t just serve to tell our partner we love them, or to engage in small talk at a party, or to give directions (no, for that we have Google maps). Our words mark who we are, where we’re from, and what we do.

And, although I spent two whole years of graduate school reading and highlighting research papers on the interplay of language and identity, it wasn’t until I undertook the role of mamá – and not mom – twelve months ago, (and well, even before that, eleven years ago when I said, Sí quiero, instead of “I do” to my husband) that I began to live and breathe this interplay and notice that parts of my identity were al revés.

Sometimes I’m Audrey. Sometimes españolita.

bilingual bilingualism espanolita identity language linguistics Spanish

Specifically, I had two ah-hah moments, two recent encounters that reminded me how interconnected language and identity are.

First, while D. was discussing his day at work after dinner. As he usually does, he seamlessly inserted work-related technical words in English into his conversación en español conmigo. (In case you’re wondering, this phenomenon is called code-switching.)

“¡Espera!” I exclaimed, cutting him off mid-sentence. “Wait! “I just realized that you spend most of your days in English, your second language. And, yo en español!” So, in a way I vivo mi vida al revés.

The second moment was while babysitting my monolingual English-speaking neighbor’s seven-month baby a week ago: as I changed his diaper and fed him a bottle I listened as the words from my mouth came out en español, not English.

Cuban Poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat distinguishes between language and tongue. Language, an external instrument we employ to communicate, un conjunto de conjugated verbs, prepositions and syntactical structures. Tongue, on the other hand, is a part of our body, part of quienes somos, a reflection of our identity. And our identity is fluid, constantly changing to meet the needs of the moment.

Here’s a little peek into my fluid self as I change and move back and forth from Audrey to españolita and back again.

Soy mujer en español – Spanish is my conjugal tongue. Yes, I conjugate verbos in the pretérito and imperfecto when recounting the events of my day to D. over dinner, and yes I use el subjuntivo to let him know que saque la basura before bed, but I take on the identity of mujer, not wife, lowering the pitch of my voice and interrupting mi marido mid-sentence (stereotypical Spanish).

bilingual bilingualism espanolita language linguistics identity Spanish

I am a daughter and sister and sometimes friend in English. OMG-that’s-awesome-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-I’ve-seriously-frickin’-missed-you are my chosen vocabulary in these relationships, but who I am changes, too, when going from mujer to daughter. The pitch of my voice raises by two octaves (very “American” according to D.) and my friendly advice consists of indirect feedback embedded in positive validation (“I like ____, but why not consider ____ instead?”).

bilingual bilingualism espanolita language linguistics identity Spanish

Soy madre en español – Spanish is my parental tongue. And, not just to my own daughter. To other babies, and children. Without blinking an eye, the first words out of my mouth when I swoop the neighbor’s baby into my arms are Pero-qué-niño-más-guapo-¡ay-qué-monada-de-criatura-por favor-no-me-digas! Add to that lots of cheek-pinching and arm-carressing and forceful Quédate-quieta-y no-toques-eso (instead of suggested redirecting).

Soy amiga – a veces – en español. Spanish, my sometimes fraternal tongue. A greeting with dos besos, not a hug. Texting my arrival at your house ten minutes before I show up, instead of picking a date in my Google calendar.

I am neighbor in English, refilling exchanged Tupperware with baked goods and arranging play dates with start and finish times.

Soy nuera, tengo suegros, les he dado su primera nieta. (I’m daughter-in-law in Spanish). Soy nuera, graciously agreeing with comments of Estás muy guapa embarazada que antes estabas demasiado delgada and unsolicited advice on proper stroller protocol for my daughter.

bilingual bilingualism identity language linguistics espanolita Spanish

Some days I feel, in the words of Pérez Firmat, “multiliped and so divided,” and that “I’m still trying to feel balanced, not entirely at home” in either language. But, thankfully, on most days me encuentro a gusto siendo sometimes Audrey and sometimes españolita.

Have you ever considered the intersection of language and identity? In what ways do you change your language to meet the needs of the moment? Interested in reading more about the how and why bilinguals use language(s) in different contexts? You can read about researcher Grosjean’s “Complementary Principle” here!

4 thoughts on “Life “Al Revés” and Speaking in Tongues

  1. Pingback: The Many Faces of Bilingual – part 6 | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  2. Pingback: Conversation with Dr. François Grosjean, Professor & Researcher on Bilingualism, and Author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality” | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  3. Pingback: The Many Faces of Bilingual – part 7 | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  4. Pingback: Looking back: a six-month reflection | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

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