Three Mother Tongues: On Language

by Brigitte Stepanov

I have always been fascinated by language acquisition. Specifically, I’ve always been interested in how one learns a language, the best approaches to teaching a language, what constellation of knowledge and practice exists between teaching and learning. As I work towards my PhD in French Studies, I contemplate questions of poetics and memory, of language acquisition and foreign language teaching. My love of language stems, I think, from my personal experience with it, from being immersed in a multilingual environment from a young age.

I was raised in a mainly Russian-speaking home, but attended a French/English school for most of my education, and thus grew up in a trilingual setting. I remember attending Russian school on weekends when I was little. I was a small girl gripping onto my cousin, the only known face in a building filled with older students and unfamiliarity. It is in Russian that I conceived the immediate world around me, and this world, when I was first discovering it, mostly revolved around family and food. The formalized aspect of going to Russian school was frightening at first. I spoke the language with my family members; now I was being asked to repeat sentences on the spot in front of a room full of strangers. To me, this seemed, well, inconceivable.

Linguistic Heritage

“Linguistic Heritage” by Brigitte Stepanov

Although at first hesitant, I soon realized that there was little to be afraid of. Fear was quickly replaced with excitement and eagerness to spend time with new friends. I even reaffirmed my initial Russian language-tasty fare association. Bright red borscht was served in cream-colored bowls at every lunch; I still remember holding what appeared to be a massive metal spoon while slurping away at my favorite soup. Indeed, the expressions and words I heard and learned then would indubitably shape my relationship with language. Soon I found myself in a game of competing perspectives; no longer at home during the day, I saw the world of school; no longer at home, l heard a world of multiple languages. In kindergarten, I remember counting and reading aloud in French and English; a word I learned and initially concluded as being English was “pizza” – a now sweet memory, for the reason that my knowledge of “pizza” was rewarded by a very slice of it.

I am often asked, “In which language do you think?” Truly, I perceive language on a continuum of thought; thought on a continuum of language. Thoughts slip into one language or another, based on convenience and timing, geographic location, the language in which a conversation is being conducted. How or why, then, does one feel more comfortable speaking one language over another (aside from considerations of proficiency)? Why does one relate to his or her mother tongue, to his or her native or first language? In fact, these three similar labels already yield to intuitively different ways of understanding language. The expression “mother tongue” may make one suppose that this language is the one that the mother speaks, perhaps indicating a generational transmission. Moreover, the term “native language” may give way to ambiguity – is it the language of the region in which the speaker lives currently or in which he or she lived in the past? Is it additionally or alternatively the language of one’s nationality? Finally, the phrase “first language” (or “L1”) is intuitively understood as the first language learned, the language first spoken since birth. Perhaps these synonymous yet different ways of identifying a language point to the subtleties of words and phrases that sometimes get swept under the rug.

"Competing Perspectives" by Brigitte Stepanov

“Competing Perspectives” by Brigitte Stepanov

Recently I had lots going on, from traveling to contemplating moving into a new apartment, and I laughed to myself, thinking, “You’ve been a bit нервнaя lately.” The Runglish comment passed, but later that day, when I encountered a Russian speaking friend, I asked him how one would translate нервнaя. I guess I was just curious about how someone else would express the word.


That was the answer I had expected. Somehow I wasn’t satisfied.

“No, no, no. That’s not it. That’s not right,” I persisted.

I sat down at my laptop, opened up Google Translate, fiddled around with my Russian keyboard and resolutely typed in the word, watching the “detected language” flicker from Serbian to Kazakh, and finally to Russian when the word нерв, nerve, was spelled out.

“That I agree with.”

But when I added the feminine suffix, when I transformed the word into an adjective, what I was left with was: nervous.

“Nervous? Hmm, that doesn’t seem right. I don’t feel nervous,” I mused.

Clicking on “11 more translations,” I scrolled through my options.

“Jittery? Jumpy? I don’t feel either of those…”

“Nervy? I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that adjective used…”

“Fussy? Well I am fussing over this one word…”

Neurotic was the eighth option.

“But I just don’t feel neurotic!” I thought, feeling more neurotic by the second.

Experiences like these persuade me to believe that words are not simply letters on a page, sounds traveling through the air. Words are the glinting nebulae of greater expressions and narratives that lead one to have a certain affective response. To me, the words нервнaя, neurotic, nervous, don’t all mean the same thing. In the most subjective way, these words just feel different.

Samuel Beckett, referencing the multiplicity of his working languages, wrote: “It was a different experience from writing in English. It was more exciting for me – writing in French.”[1] Perhaps excitement lies in the new, in the experimental, in the less trialled. Perhaps language, when it is “exciting”, takes on a textured quality; words become robust materials with which to work. Indeed, Beckett also claimed that French permitted him to write with little to no style; one could say he took on a minimalist quality via a foreign language: “en français c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style,” [2] [in French it’s easier to write without style] he contemplated. And then one thinks of Nancy Huston, a novelist who, when reflecting on language, recounts a conversation she once had with a Scottish woman living in France: “Quand j’entends bracken, leaves, fog, je vois et je sens ce dont il s’agit, les couleurs ocre et marron, les odeurs de l’automne, l’humidité…alors que si on me dit fougère, feuilles, brouillard, ça me laisse de glace. Je ne sens rien.”[3] [When I hear bracken, leaves, fog, I see and I feel what it’s about, the colors ocher and brown, the smells of autumn, the humidity…while if someone says to me fougère, feuilles, brouillard, it leaves me cold. I feel nothing.]

Like Books

“Like Books” by Brigitte Stepanov

On the one hand, language multiplicity can give one multiple perspectives on the world, on the complex nexus between language, culture, and literature. Moreover, it is not only vocabulary – words and expressions – that one learns with the acquisition of a new language, but possibly novel concepts via new modes of expression. And yet, one may live in a new country or visit it, not know the language, and experience multiple new perspectives on cultures and people. Perhaps, then, the specific acquaintance with multiple languages can lead to the defamiliarization of language as a whole, as well as bring about a distanced-closeness. That is to say, one may begin to regard a certain language with a certain distance, while simultaneously feeling intimate to another. When learning a new language, one may begin to conceive the objects around him or her differently. One may feel more “excited” – to borrow Beckett’s terminology – about the use of one language over another. Indeed, a certain distanced-closeness is also relevant with regard to culture in the case of multicultural exposure. One may begin to feel closer to one culture, all the while developing a certain distance with regard to another.

To thus return to a questioning of language, the multiplicity and subtleties of expression may help point to the slippery quality inherent to words. What is language other than short sounds and echoes, the combination of which creates greater narratives, tells tales? How is it that some words are better remembered in a certain language than in another? Why is it that the more one delves into language, the more one seems to get tied up in the best way to say something, the best way to enunciate a thought? Whether one speaks one or several language(s), language is something in which one can get lost, and not just literally with respect to grammatical rules or proper vocabulary, but metaphorically too. One may become immersed in or cradled by the sounds, the meanings, the nuances of words. Ultimately, language is a cluster of innumerable preoccupations, a topic that, through its very medium, leads to the proliferation of questions and reflexions oftentimes bearing little to no answers. How, for instance, does one personally relate to language? How or why does one develop a preference for one language or mode of expression over another? How, even, does one say or write the right end; when might one write or say it?

[1]  Slote, Sam. “Bilingual Beckett, Beyond the Linguistic Turn.” The New Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett. Dirk Van Hulle, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 119

[2]  Ibid. (All translations are my own.)

[3]  Huston, Nancy. Nord perdu suivi de Douze France. Actes Sud: Babel n° 637, (1999) 2004, p. 62