What Our Language Means

MeditationI’m participating in a holistic program intended to promote health, fitness and wellbeing through self-discovery, empowerment and a shift of perceptions of what those concepts mean for each one of us. Because I’m New Age like that. One of the exercises consisted in creating personal and positive affirmations that would eventually turn into our reality by means of our subconscious mind. Bear with me.

Somebody in the group whose first language was not English asked if she should write hers in her mother tongue to assure that the strength and power of those words really hit home. Of course. I’ve even talked about how our first language represents our identity and background in English-only Is Not Only About English, so it makes sense that something as personal as that task was done in “our” language. Except that it never crossed my mind to do the same myself.

I’ve been puzzled since. For bilinguals, what’s with the emotional relationship between some aspects of our lives and the language we experience them in?  And I don’t only mean what language you are most comfortable with—which I can no longer answer, but what it means to deliberately use one or the other based on the context.

Assuming there is a mastery of both (or more) languages, one should feel able to express comfortably in any of them. How, why and where do we use one or the other then? Some simple answers would be: to accommodate to the language choice of the person we are talking to; some concepts are better expressed in a particular language; we use one language as part of our job and a different one to talk to our family; to show solidarity or separation from a certain community; etc. But we are way more complex than that.

We could probably track the emotional links back to our learning process and our motive, if purposely, to acquire a language. The one we learned from our mom will likely have a heavier emotional weight than the one we learned in school, though our second could turn out to be the language we fall in love through, making it just as deep on an emotional level. Every circumstance is obviously different, but I believe we have certain emotions we relate to a particular language and they determine not only its usage, but a whole understanding of those feelings in general.

We do not draw the same memories and values from our different languages equally. It’s been shown that even one same experience might be talked about in a different way depending on the language we use, focusing on those core principles we relate to each. That’s why I didn’t write my positive affirmations for the class in Spanish, this mind-body paradigm I’m into now I learned and made sense of in English.

Susan Ervin-Tripp from the University of California, Berkeley sums it up in her article Emotion in Bilingualism: “We have seen that the emotions we have towards languages are shown in our learning of them, our desire to hear and speak them, in our political use of them, in our rhetorical strategies in communicating feelings, and in the memories and feelings we discover when we use them. In all these respects, bilingualism makes our emotional and social experience richer”.

4 thoughts on “What Our Language Means

  1. This has certainly been my experience, although I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of emotions, only vocabulary and remembered experiences. Very thoughtful post, thanks!

  2. Diana,

    This is very interesting. It makes me think of a conversation related to our experience of becoming a mother in USA and the vocabulary we use with our children, especially when they are babies. I believe that many of the emotions and feelings I experimented as a mother of young children were in English, though my native language is Spanish. I feel that there is a stage in my life that became more American than Chilean because of the circumstances, and I embraced it that way.

    Now, regarding the positive affirmations that you had to create, I must say that in Chile there was a professor who once taught me about a very similar concept: “caricias positivas” [positive touches/caresses. They refer to all those compliments you receive from people that make you feel so well about yourself. So, instead of receiving a complaint or disapproving statement you get these wonderful affirmations of encouragement and praise that boost your self-esteem.

    I must also add that Tim, my husband, tries to have our whole family praise each family member on a regular basis during our daily breakfast or dinner time together. Sometimes, it is challenging, especially with 2 teenagers and a pre-teen.

    Thanks for sharing this post. I feel inspire to write something and say something. Now, all I am missing is deciding the language I’ll use.

  3. I’d love to hear more about this holistic program you are participating in and how it is going for you so far. It sounds great. Article is great, too!

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