Confessions of a bilingual orator


linguistic liminality


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I am what you would call a bilingual orator.  A two-language speaker. The two languages I speak find individual chambers in which to stay in my brain without mixing, but the two depend on each other and form one whole language with which I speak, with which I exist.

My spirit, it speaks Swahili. I learned my Catechism in Swahili. I can only communicate with God in this language, because it is the language through which I was introduced to Him. Do not ask me to pray in English. I can try, but chances are I will fail miserably. I simply do not know how to. I have heard what other people say when they say prayers in English, and they are no different from my Swahili prayers. But I, I can never say those words to God in English and mean them the same way as I would in Swahili.

My intellect on the other hand speaks English. Intellectual conversations are purely processed in English and I lack the basic vocabulary for intellectual conversations in Swahili. I know not the words enlightenment, liberty, superiority, patriarchy or feminism in Swahili even though I am well-versed in the discourse of such matters.

My culture is a mixture of the two, so my social engagements are never in either language. I socialize with a mixed tongue. Honestly, there are some phrases that one simply cannot say in English. Imagine a person attempting to say, “ni shigidi shida” in English! The statement is practically words, a feeling, an experience and an identity in one, to translate it would be to rob it of all the underlying meanings.

When it comes to interacting with friends with whom I only have one language in common, you can imagine the complications. I am often restricted to using only half my vocabulary and so I implore a lot of body language. In written conversations where I do not have the aid of nonverbals, I opt for formal tones in order to make sure I am not misunderstood. The result is usually seemingly over-polished and overly formal sentences.

When I tell tales about the realities of the coexistence of my two tongues in this way, most find it deeply impressive and test to see if I am truly capable of separating the two when I speak. I can and I do to their amusement. However, in the privacy of my room, I sob. I detest the fact that I only possess partial vocabularies of either language. I most definitely hate having to use overly explained sentences to reach a point that others reach with a few words.

The worst part, however, is having to translate word for word, from one language to another, every time I am asked to communicate in one language something that I only know in the other. There are a few inconsiderate people who would point out how my Swahili has an English accent or my English has a Swahili accent to taunt me. In public, I often brush off their comments by bragging that at least I speak two languages. In private, I spend hours learning more of both languages to improve my vocabulary. However, given my circumstances, my efforts are often futile. With English, I often find myself happy enough just getting by and, with Swahili, I am living in countries where there are no other speakers to naturally learn from. As a result, I frequently find myself uncomfortable writing in either language. Growing insecurities would often take from me the love, the thrill and the desire to write. I remember trying to write in English and feeling amiss, and trying in Swahili and failing miserably. So, I stopped writing for a while.

When the moment of reconciliation of my two tongues came, I found my voice. I found a third language in which my authentic voice pierced through the layers of insecurity. An in-between, simple, poetic and multicultural tongue. This is the language I write with, I dream in and I get by with today. It is a tongue of “for-lack-of-better words”. A tongue of experiencing in one language and communicating the experience in another. I unlock the poetry in translations and the narrations in over explanations and treat those as works of art when delivering them in writing. I stop getting lost in translations and find myself in them. Instead of fighting the confusions I have learnt to love and roll with them, truly becoming a bilingual orator.