The Curious Ways Identity Is Shaped
Recently, I’ve been listening to a podcast (Un podcast à soi) one of my sisters shared with me. It’s in French, and although French is my mother tongue, I rarely use it, apart from a call with an old friend or family member here and there. I work — write, read, edit — in English. I communicate with close friends mostly in English (whose mother tongue is, more often than not, not English). Conversations at home happen in Spanish because, although P speaks excellent French, Spanish (with an Argentinian accent) is the language we met in. Most of the content I consume is in English, with the occasional Instagram post or TV series in Spanish, and 5’ talks by the humorist Guillaume Meurice for a good laugh at night when I can’t sleep.
[ Guillaume Meurice interviews French citizens on controversial topics like same-sex marriage, ecology, our capitalist economy, and the like. ]
A Desire to Learn Turned Ali Baba’s Cavern
I know 16-year-old me would be very pleased with me barely using my French.
When I was younger and eager to speak and write in my second languages ‘like a native,’ I did everything I could in them, although mostly in English. Curious to try a new recipe? I’d google it in English. A health question? I’d look it up in English. My phone was never in French, and neither were my diary or my blogs. And I loved to spend a little extra time looking for words in mono-linguistic dictionaries rather than having them translated, helpful to learn to think in rather than translate another language.
English, specifically, has always had a very special place in my heart. Very quickly, it became much more than a simple language practice. It was my connection to the outside world, to radio stations and TV shows that presented me with new ideas, ways to think, idioms and expressions. I liked to listen to new intonations, new accents. I simply lit up when I could walk on the street and understand conversations my British neighbors were engaged in while walking around my hometown.
English was also my tiny bubble when the world was a little too much. I could use it so most people around wouldn’t understand what I wrote — or wouldn’t take the time to try. I felt safer to write about my day in that language than in my mother tongue and more comfortable to make mistakes (I was bound to, after all). Being able to speak with other words gave me confidence, saved me time on homework — it was so much easier to remember that ‘sleep’ turned into ‘slept’ and not ‘sleeped’ in the past when I’d seen it in Harry Potter books rather than a boring white list of irregular verbs — and pushed me to get my point across clearly even when I didn’t know the words. It made Saturday night movie choices between my two younger sisters and me much easier because I didn’t mind what we’d watch as much as that it be in its original version.
Slowly but very surely, I was absorbing the messages that didn’t exist in my mother tongue. They shaped my mind, the way I thought, what seemed normal to say and what didn’t. It opened me to new horizons.
The world felt increasingly bigger, and my feet more anchored in it.
The time spent bent over foreign song lyrics, trying to make sense of them, and pressing pause on Freaky Friday to repeat after Anna taught me that practice makes you, yes, more knowledgeable, but also resilient and agile in your mind. It taught me patience, and that if you really want to get better at a skill, you have to create opportunities to learn it in a way that’s entertaining and engaging. It taught me to approach difference with curiosity and light-heartedness rather than judgment or fear.
Using English was part of my everyday, and a big one. It brought me joy, focus, and made my creativity work its magic on its own. I had very little idea of what I’d do after I’d graduate from high school, but one thing was crystal clear — and if I can still remember when I heard this mundane expression for the very first time, it must definitely be a sign. I was going to work using my languages, every day, and I wouldn’t live in France because French is boring. I knew it already, and I wouldn’t waste time listening to or speaking a tongue that left me in a robot mode — and yes, I sounded exactly like that because I was 16 and a little rebellious.
Knowing other languages made me permeable to the world, made me want to ask and learn about it, and to explore it through words.
From Lille to Brussels And Into Hopes
Fast forward a few years, still as clueless about what I’d do, but just as curious and excited to learn more about those languages that I never seemed to know fully, I move to Brussels. The capital city of Belgium is less than 200km away from my hometown of Lille, and I’m going to university to study the skill of translation. Throughout those 3 years, I learn that I love my grammar, culture, and linguistics classes, but the translation ones, not so much. I learn that having to write in French makes me a little angry, impatient, and dismissive.
When I get my second student job at the visitor’s center of the European Parliament (or Parlamentarium for short), I get ecstatic. Most of my colleagues come from other countries too; they speak various languages fluently and have the matching life stories to narrate in them. Most of them either moved to Brussels on their own or were second-generation immigrants, mixed in with Belgians who had their own special relationship with the world at large. Every weekend, I’d get the opportunity to speak English, French, Spanish with them, learn a little Italian or Flemish or Russian here and there — and meetings were in English! Could I believe this! How had I gotten so lucky!
My shoes were uncomfortable and our blue uniforms a little ridiculous, but I didn’t care. Using another language than mine helped me overcome the fear to speak in front of strangers. I focused on how to say things best, how to best present information, how to make myself understood. We’d be working together or alone depending on the stations we were at, and when on my own, I’d let the curiosity that had made me take note of new words from The OC guide my attention to the new family of visitors who’d come into the room.
I listened closely to their voices, the intonation in their accents, trying to identify the language they spoke (Polish and Portuguese surprisingly sounded alike to me). I’d listen to how they received information on the European Union, how they perceived the place, what caught their attention. It made me genuinely happy to wake up on Sunday mornings, wondering who would come in, whose life stories from abroad I’d get to hear, what new words I’d learn, what world narratives I’d explore.
Speaking other tongues reminded me that where other languages were used, other lives were lived, other issues existed, other challenges were met.
Being in touch with my languages and the cultures they carried reminded me to see further than where I’d come from, even on Sundays. They reminded me that where other languages were used, other lives were lived, other issues existed, other challenges were met. It reminded me that I was lucky — determined yes, but really lucky — that I’d actively chosen to be in Brussels, that I’d go to New Zealand soon and to Denmark after that, and that I could do all that because I’d had the time to learn other forms of communication, to dedicate my energy to work experiences I could take a little longer to apply to. And besides being in love with the process of uncovering veil after veil, I felt responsible to learn about cultures’ secrets because I knew I could.
When a Passion Seamlessly Becomes Who You Are
I don’t know if anyone can explain why they feel so drawn to one activity, one hobby, one topic or another. Is there a specific event that makes us so eager to explore what we feel most curious about? Or is it a seed planted by the Universe before we’re born? Is it out of necessity? A combination of events? Or maybe a combination of all those things?
Whether we love or feel the responsibility to explore languages, music, climbing or politics doesn’t really matter; it’s the journey through them, through their exploration, that makes us who we are. Our passions and experiences with and within them help us make sense of who we are, what we value, how our minds and brains work. That knowledge helps us take action and feel more alive. It makes us confident, at ease, and like there is at least one place in the world where we feel safe and cared for — within ourselves.
And in turn, once we feel at ease and comforted within ourselves, we can go out there and explore the world and all the challenges it holds. We can take that knowledge, share it our way, and invite others to follow along. Be a little more united, for what it’s worth, and walk the face of the Earth with a little more in common than what we might have hoped for.
So here I am, reconnecting with the French woman in me. I’m reconnecting with the language I first spoke, the one my family can understand me in, the primary one used in my passport. The one people know I know just by telling them where I’m from, the one that used to make me a little angry and impatient to work with. I’m reconnecting with the ways the language helps me think because with a language comes a culture, and I’m ready to get acquainted with mine again. After those years, I’m ready to listen to what the TV, books, podcasts, and YouTube have to say, how they approach the topics I’m learning about elsewhere, and how it is, that one too, going to shape my identity yet again.
Writing those words today, I can’t believe how fitting this nickname, the linguistic yogi, feels. Languages, for me, have always felt like yet another outlet to explore, discover, remain open, conduct self-inquiry, and investigate about the world.
What’s yours? Do you have a topic, an activity, a little (or big) something that has this effect on you? What are the life decisions you’ve made, the experiences you’ve been through, that have made you who you are today? Does it make sense to you?
This week, our word is identity, and I invite you to explore, investigate, and learn what it means to you. Who are you?
With love & curiosity,
P.s. Every week, I write about a word, tell stories, and invite you to question and ask the shapes and forms that word takes in your life, how it impacts your physical, emotional, and social wellbeing. Curious to get them? Sign up here. It comes with a meditation workbook to support you as you set it as a regular practice.