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Mother languages

There are two languages: the mother tongue and the other. The first is given to us as we are born into a language in which we absorb implicit cultural elements we can only clearly see by leaving them behind. Only from a distance does the mother tongue acquire its proper dimension; only from a distance can we see her gaps, familiar places and limitations. We can only learn to miss and reconcile with her from a distance. But what about the other language, the adopted one we choose? 

Years ago, I met a man from South Korea living in Chile, my country. This man worked for a multinational technology company and had a hectic schedule. What made this man unique was not that his company had assigned him to live in Chile but that he wanted to learn Spanish. With an extraordinary passion, he devoted himself every afternoon to learning the Latin alphabet, pronunciation and verb conjugations.

One day, impressed by his progress and driven dedication, I asked him what had motivated him to learn Spanish. He looked at me carefully and told me his story. One day, this man was walking through a market in Seoul when he heard the voice of a woman singing in Spanish. Even though he couldn’t understand the words, he felt moved, and decided to enter the shop and ask the assistant for the singer’s name. It was Miriam Hernández, a Chilean singer of romantic songs. After buying the cd, he went to his house, sat on the sofa and listened to the music carefully. Although he couldn’t understand the words, he liked the music and felt that the songs were telling stories close to him. 

So this man, who until then had never heard the Spanish language and had no idea where Chile was located on the map, decided that he wanted to understand what those songs were about. So he set out to visit Chile and learn Spanish. After a few unsuccessful attempts asking for relocation, he managed to be assigned to a branch in Chile. And now, there he was, in front of me, surrounded by dictionaries learning Spanish and enjoying the songs of the singer he had personally met after attending a concert in a famous casino.

This story made me think about the opposite of the mother tongue: the other language one chooses to live in. Hadn’t this man decided to learn Spanish out of his desire? Hadn’t the singer’s voice awakened an unknown love for a language that wasn’t her mother tongue? 

We are made of our mother tongue because we have learned how to name and express our most profound feelings from her. Our inner self is rooted in our mother tongue -to the point that only after many years can we learn to wish, love, dream or curse in another language. Still, we are also made of the love we profess for another language, its seduction and its promises and all that we have learned to love about it through a special kind of imagination. The one that fills the gaps in sentences that we do not fully understand, the one that pushes us to invest ourselves in a new language as in a game. 

For us, migrants, we can develop a problematic relationship with the mother tongue, we don’t want to lose it, but we know we have to restrict her use; still, it is the language of feelings and memories. But on the other hand, the language of migration awakens new possibilities and pushes the boundaries for creating new paths. 

And perhaps this is the teaching of the story: to celebrate the mother tongue is to celebrate the different worlds and selves that languages open and close. One gave us the roots, and the other taught us to walk with them. The first gave us a home, and the second gave us a journey.

Photo Sebastian silva







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