“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
I came across this nugget of insight a while ago and it made me smile, because this is how I feel about languages–that people who speak multiple languages sometimes use them as masks, as disguises that reveal even as they hide. We sometimes use our second or third languages to distance ourselves from the words we’re expressing, because this distance allows us to be more honest than we would dare to be in our native language.
Take my dad. Italian was his first language; he spoke it exclusively until he was five or six, when he started school in Brooklyn in the late 1920s. As an adult, he spoke English perfectly, without an accent, but he remained fluent in Italian–Sicilian, really, which to my ears has always sounded like Italian’s earthier, gruffer sibling. My mom’s first language was French–she didn’t begin speaking English until she was in her mid-twenties, when she moved to New York from French Canada. When she began dating my dad soon after, she barely spoke any English, so he would speak to her in Italian, because it was closer to French and easier for her to understand. As her English improved, that became their lingua franca, and from then on they spoke American English together, sprinkled with French and Italian words and phrases.
So that’s their linguistic background. But the mask part is this: According to my mother, Dad’s father never told his children that he loved them. Never said it. Their mother, though loving, was quiet. And the children certainly never expressed any familial devotion out loud. So saying “I love you” was not something that came naturally to Dad. Even when he decided that Mom, the lovely French-speaking girl with the chic taste of a Canadian Audrey Hepburn, was the amore of his vita, this handsome, dark-haired Mario Lanza-lookalike couldn’t bring himself to tell her. Not in his first or second languages.
But he found that he could say it in hers. In the polite form. Je vous aime, he told her. Je vous aime aussi, she replied. And for the rest of their lives, they said it just that way to each other.
Dad felt love in his heart, but he couldn’t bring his lips to make the sounds that would send it out into the world to be heard and judged until he put on the mask of French. Then he was hidden, and he was revealed. The mask did its job.
I’ve seen this happen again and again. When we speak several languages, we probably find it easiest to express ourselves in our mother tongue–but then we find ourselves donning the mask of our other languages to express things that we cannot bring ourselves to say in the naked light of the language we speak best. I see myself do it when I write in my journal about difficult things–though that writing is not meant for any other eyes, sometimes I find myself switching from English to French, because while on a technical level it’s often harder for me to find the mot juste in that language, it’s often easier for me to write freely when I’m concealed behind that Gallic wall.
I also use language as a mask when I swear, often devolving into creative cursing in other languages when I’m the throes of anger or frustration. Usually the (English-speaking) people around me can tell by my tone that I’m definitely not saying the Rosary, but they can’t be shocked because they don’t know what it all means, exactly. The exception was my mother. I never once cursed in English in front of my mother; I think she would have smacked my mouth if I did. But if I couldn’t get my key in the door because I was holding onto a hundred packages and I was dropping fifty of them and it was starting to rain, I could explode with a vehement merde alors! She understood it perfectly–and she would just giggle. I swore from behind the mask, so that apparently made it okay.
This phenomenon, this permission to call out true things from behind the castle wall of a foreign tongue, is endlessly interesting to me, and represents one more reason that I think it’s so important to speak more than one language. In the field of arts integration, we talk about “multiple points of access”–in other words, giving students more than one way in to the learning of a concept. If they have trouble writing about it, get them to draw it, get them to act it out…the use of the arts can get them in a side door when, for whatever reason, the front entrance is barred to them. Using multiple languages to express ourselves, especially in times of stress or love, is just as useful. We put on the mask of a language not quite our own, and we become someone a little different–someone who can say, who can express, what the unmasked crusader cannot.
And this, mes amis, is a splendid thing.