This is the first in a series of interviews with multilingual people. Here Maria jumps into the advantages of speaking more than one language, her preference for Spanish when it comes to swearing, and the significance of who you talk to at the end of the day.
Maria, tell us about yourself!
After ostensibly having moved to Vancouver from Santiago, Chile, to apply for a Master of Publishing program, I’ve been doing anything but. Translating is looking more and more appealing by the minute nowadays. All the words!
What’s your first language and where did you learn it?
Chilean Spanish, along with other varieties like Mexican Spanish and Spanish Spanish. The Chilean variety I learned at home and through my immediate life, the other flavours through reading, soap operas, and dubbed cartoons.
What other languages do you speak?
Why did you learn English?
It’s hard not to learn English when the movies, songs and TV shows you like are in English. It felt like I would be able to appreciate them more if I could understand the language fully instead of trusting subtitles.
Also, my dad is an English teacher and learning English is a pretty big thing in South America: “It will open so many doors for you!”. They make it sound like a skill in itself, and it was actually how I got my first real job despite my almost complete lack of relevant experience. In a way it translates as high status and privilege there as well, so if you have the opportunity to learn English there’s no reason not to do it.
You speak English with a very high level of fluency. What do you think helped you achieve that fluency?
Reading, more than anything else.
And going back to the previous question for a bit, it’s easy to become fluent in English because it’s so ubiquitous you almost don’t have to try. Aside from being curious and actually looking up things you don’t know yet, you don’t really need to go out of your way. You just keep reading/watching/listening to the same stuff you would normally and you’ll be exposed to new things effortlessly.
What differences do you find between English and Spanish?
I’m not very good at pattern recognition or whatever the skill would be that would allow me to make myself a general impression of a language (or anything else), but I tend to think that all languages are complementary in that they focus on different aspects of the world, to a certain extent. I have found very precise words in English that I miss when speaking Spanish, but it also happens the other way around. It mostly feels like if I didn’t know one of them I would be missing out somehow.
Do you feel like you have the same personality in the two languages?
Maybe. My living in English started with me moving to Canada from Chile, so it’s hard for me to tell how much of the way I feel about and carry myself now has to do with post-moving-to-a-different-hemisphere confidence and how much is just about the different language.
I’ll definitely say I feel less smart in English, in that I feel less comfortable attempting witty wordplay and that’s an important part of how I relate to people. Also, all crossword puzzles except for the ones on the Metro seem pretty impossible and that’s not fun for someone who relies on her word smarts.
What language do you dream in?
I’ll make it ‘feel’ instead. During my first three years here, I used to go home to Spanish, which meant the narrative of my daily activities, the answer to ‘How was your day?’, was in Spanish too. But when I started going home to English, when English speakers took on that role of the people I would unpack my day with, the inner voice that’s always composing stories adjusted to the new audience. My inner monologue is mostly in English now.
Can you talk about swearing in different languages?
Swearing in English is almost no fun, because the whole point is breaking the rules and the rules I grew up with never mentioned the f-word, so there’s no satisfaction because there’s no history of prohibition. Related to the swearing is complaining. If I ever want to complain about Canadians or Americans “as a people”, Spanish is the automatic choice because it allows for the required us/them distancing. Fake, of course, because for pretty much all intents and purposes I feel and am perceived as white.
Do you think that being multilingual means thinking differently than a monolingual person?
I like to think so, I like to think we’re better/smarter, but I’m sure that’s mostly me being a snob. It definitely gives you access to a bigger piece of the world and, going back to feelings because I’m terribly sentimental, the more languages you know the better your chances of finding the perfect words to describe what you’re going through/feeling/etc. That’s secretly my favourite reason for reading, listening to music, and being fascinated with art in words in general: the possibility of accidentally coming across the best possible way to describe something inside me so I can use it to explain myself better later.
Do you want to learn any other languages?
Portuguese, because it’s so similar to Spanish that it seems like an easy win. I know, shame on me.
French because when I started climbing I fantasized about climbing in France. One of my favourite books, Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (‘Hopscotch’), has respectable chunks of French in it, and there’s probably a lot of other books I can’t think of right now that I would really like to read in their original language. Madame Bovary, maybe? Also, it’s kind of hot.
Thank you so much, Maria, for sharing your reflections!