The Language Barricade
My surname has been host to many nicknames: I have been mistaken for Tabasco more times than I care to count. I’m an old hand at reminding teachers that I am not a tobacco product. I’m no mascot, see, just myself, a child of a Milanese mother who fell in love with a boy from South Jersey. My name is Charles Tabasso. And yes, Italian is my mother tongue. It was all I spoke at home for the first five years of my life, up until I started elementary school at Midtown West. From then on, I spoke English and quickly became a natural — fluent. But this transition between languages has stayed with me my whole life. I would come to question what it truly means to speak a language, and how fluency is often something taken for granted.
It isn’t solely a matter of understanding the vocabulary. True meaning rarely translates and is almost never one to one; it’s more like X: X = Y: Y, two different ways of saying the same thing. More often than, not you have to be born into the language to fully understand what’s being said. Only, once the official language has been printed into a dictionary, what are we to do with dialects? Like a fine wine, these exist wholly outside of textbooks — vernacular is rarely published, but regularly spoken. Often, dialects are phenomena that can be traced to the roots of the regions themselves. The way people speak quite literally speaks for itself. And I’ve learned this the hard way.
* * *
I was rounding off my junior year at Baruch College with the French Capstone class: Advanced Syntax and Grammar. During the same semester, I was also taking my second Italian course a little under two hours beforehand. I had made it my mission to not muddle the two languages into one Americanized slang, and had decided that between hours, my time would be best spent forgetting everything I had learned over a few pints of beer — just to better acclimate myself to one specific language or the other.
I was in for a shock: in a French class of 33, I was one of only six non-francophone students. Almost immediately, I experienced a degree of culture shock previously reserved for trips abroad. For all my years of studying their language, I couldn’t understand a word of it. I felt like a mime, or, worse even, a parrot reciting another’s lines. When I forced myself into others’ conversations, my words felt hollow and unconvincing.
Foreign languages are a stinging reminder that the gibberish you hear, isn’t that.
Articulation became a tongue-twisting game of frustration, the meaning always within arm’s reach, but disconnected from the words themselves. This was a sobering realization; I understood that it wouldn’t do well to bring flashcards to a conversation. And I wondered, in my anxious non-communicative state, why these students would be taking a capstone class if they already knew what they were speaking.
It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that just as I had majored in English to “hone my craft,” my classmates were taking the course to refine their French. But we were on two completely different planes of mastery; in my eyes, any francophone was already an expert. Almost judgmentally, I started to wonder what these students could learn from class readings — it was hard enough rationalizing the absurdly high prices of language textbooks. Still, for amateurs like myself, there was no mistaking the formulaic appeal: textbooks were training wheels to help steer our train of thought in the right direction. But similar to my own French skills, the conventional abilities of textbook-based learning are only skin-deep and lack soul Sure, I could read the words off a page, but I still hadn’t acquired an authentic flow.
So, before the class even started, it felt like I had spent the last three years of my life learning to speak French like a robot. If only I had been born speaking French, I thought angrily to myself after dismissal. Instead I had been born Italian-American, and had learned to speak in that order.
* * *
I can’t remember much from those early years, but the process of losing my accent has never left me. I was still in elementary school at the time. Up until the beginning of kindergarten, after my family had moved back to New York from Boston, I only spoke Italian, but by the end of the year it was impossible for others to tell that English wasn’t my first language. It was that damn letter R that kept giving me trouble. Right there in my name, too, “Charles,” that’s how I used to say it. Imagine: not being able to pronounce your name in another language. Just like how introverts rehearse their order before reaching the cashier, I would desperately practice mouthing my name before my turn was up. And so it went, until I grew out of my Italian accent and learned how to speak “properly” and with an American accent. Gradually, my mother only spoke to me in English, but she would always communicate with my father in Italian, and I grew up thinking that my mother tongue was a secret language between them.
This transition between languages was not unique to me: in New York, where an estimated 800 languages are spoken, children across the city often live lives predicated on the languages they speak within and without their communities. Language proves itself a cultural responsibility that is essential to the life of so-called hyphenated Americans, because someone caught between languages may also be adrift between cultures. If, as Columbia professor Robert Holman says, “language is consciousness” then language barriers can derive a sense of cognitive dissonance indicative of this seeming split between nationalities. And for children who must learn to speak the language of the education system they are enrolled in, the seesaw struggle of bilingualism can severely affect their psyche.
To not even be able to order a baked donut without a mild panic attack: it’s part of the fun, after all.
Children who are bilingual are likely to mispronounce words and confuse their syntax while growing up. It can become difficult for children to articulate themselves when they are speaking, and this tends to produce a lot of anxiety. Introspection is also common: when a child has nobody else to speak to in school, the isolation this creates is absolute. And a stigma can steadily grow as the rift between languages widens.
Promoting different languages at home is understandably important to many families. In some households, English simply isn’t spoken unless a guest is over. It just doesn’t reflect the families’ culture: English is not their native tongue, nor will it ever be. And immigrants have often brought one and the same along from all around the world; why shouldn’t they pass another language down to the younger generations? This, in turn, puts pressure on the child to keep a foot in both worlds: the English world, which may very well be reserved for school, as well as their parents’. Leaning toward any particular side can feel like a betrayal to the other party.
This dates back to the numerous waves of immigration the United States experienced throughout the 20th century. Thousands upon thousands of people passed through Ellis Island each day, few of who, spoke English. But communities acted as a safety net for these people to cling to, similar to how ants can form an airtight bubble and float down river. These neighborhoods were enclaves that survived through their inclusiveness, protecting different cultures just like the homes of today’s bilingual children. Without these anchors, immigrants would have been marooned on a hostile continent whose xenophobia was fueled by these congregations, which became known as Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy, etc. English was next to no one’s first language in these parts and the Americanizing process could be avoided indefinitely.
Tourism finds itself stuck in this niche of language and culture. On the American side, it has become a stereotype for our citizens to complain if natives don’t accommodate our aversion to learning new languages; we try to communicate as best we know how and speak louder so they can hear us better. But the hypocrisy of this expectation parallels the threshold between the immigrant communities in New York and the self-determined natives therein. As with the ants, it is only natural for people of the same background and culture to congregate and work together — that is the very essence of a community — and this is all predicated on a common language, dialect, and history.
Despite the benefits of maintaining enclaves based on a shared heritage, multiculturalism has always been a response to ignorance. Mark Twain famously wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness...” If so, language is another lethal form of culture shock, and a synonymous side effect of traveling. Foreign languages are a stinging reminder that the gibberish you hear, isn’t that. And this was the hardest thing for me to come to grips with my most recent time abroad: that the nonsense I heard could translate into meaningful phrases and sentences; and outside of the English language, there was a whole world of nonsense being spoken and understood with the same clarity as back home in the States.
This was my experience throughout my winter semester, when I took a creative writing course in Tokyo, Japan. I traveled with a handful of friends and brought a travel journal to chronicle my time in what had otherwise been a completely abstract point on the map. Not knowing a word of Japanese, I often found myself wondering how my experiences abroad compared to immigrants first coming to America. I never left my group of friends unless following some familiar route. They were my safety net. I would otherwise have been a complete stranger in a strange land; at least within my own community, I could belong. I was reduced to pointing for my food like some child, entirely reliant on the shopkeepers’ understandings of English. Whenever I attempted to speak Japanese, it felt similarly robotic to my capstone experience, like I was a parrot having a one-way conversation with a highly attentive wall.
This was exactly what played out during my first time in at Shibuya Crossing, a famous pedestrian intersection close to the heart of Tokyo. My class had just navigated the labyrinthine channels of its alleyways to an equivalent of Times Square. A three-story advertisement with lights the size of dinner plates towered overhead. Our goal for the rest of the night was to simply “get lost,” or, more accurately, to explore. Naturally, one of my travel companions came with me, and we dispersed amid the tangled masses of Shibuya, balking at illegible advertisements and the poorly translated English phrases we passed by. Reflexively, we dipped into a Krispy Kreme — the first familiar brand we recognized — and communicated in stuttering sign language to the cashiers which donuts we wanted. They bowed politely, “heated?” I nodded back yes, forgetting even my English. Everything felt foreign except for the change I placed in its assigned plate. To not even be able to order a baked donut without a mild panic attack: it’s part of the fun, after all.
Language is membranous, a self-contained means of socialization and cultural integration. It can map the borders of a country far better than any physical wall or sketch. But even if fluency were to be a litmus test, it could never define an individual. As bilingual children who walk a tightrope between nationalities attest to when they begin speaking English, this is a very real cultural clash replete with the fear of assimilation and the stipulation for preserve one’s heritage. The words themselves will always be important, but it’s the history beneath them that will always speak louder.
By Charles Tabasso
Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docent Maya Hilbert for creating artwork for this piece.
Check the New Media Artspace out at http://www.newmediartspace.info/
A portion of this piece depends upon an article in The New York Times, “Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages” by Sam Roberts.