On Being Trilingual
My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC quiz programme QI, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no fewer than twenty-seven words for eyebrows and the same number for moustache, ranging from mustaqe madh, or bushy, to a mustaqe posht, one which droops down at both ends.
—Adam Jacot de Boinod, The Meaning of Tingo
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”
“This feels so…”
“Never mind, I don’t know how to say it in English. Some sort of cozy.”
“What are you saying?”
I laugh. “Sorry. Basically there is this Norwegian word hyggelig…”
* * *
This happens a lot to me. My brain is incapable of sticking to one language at a time. I speak English, Chinese, and Norwegian, and my brain assumes everyone else does too. It perceives a feeling, idea, or situation and labels it the best way it knows how, using whichever language. You would think such a brain would come with a filter, one that checks for language uniformity before the words reach my mouth. But no.
According to a Mother Nature Network article on the word hygge, the Danish equivalent of hyggelig, “Hygge apparently has no direct analogue in English, and related words like ‘coziness,’ ‘togetherness’ and ‘well-being’ only cover a fraction of its nebulous definition” (McLendon, 2013). Personally, I would define hyggelig as being curled up on a soft red couch with a cup of hot chocolate between your hands surrounded by family and friends while it’s snowing outside and the fireplace is crackling, throwing a warm ambience about the room. It is unbelievable that I had forgotten about this beautiful, heartwarming word until a recent hyggelig moment.
One white Saturday morning, my college friends and I found ourselves in a snow-covered playground. On approach, the only thing visible above the three-foot high snow was the fence of the playground and the red and yellow roof of the slide. We climbed over the fence in our heavy layers and clunky boots and started digging up various parts of the playground. My favorite was a big green plate-shaped swing. We cleared just enough snow for it to gently rock back and forth. Sitting on it for more than thirty seconds made my butt go numb, and whenever I leaned back, my head would hit the pile of snow behind me, which in retaliation threw some of itself over my face. My friends were sliding down the slide in their sled, consistently falling on their faces at the bottom. Another friend didn’t have gloves, so he did jumping jacks in the snow the whole time. I was sitting on the swing with my friend Turner, with his arm wrapped around my shoulders, and my legs around his legs. I was talking into his scarf, and he into my hat. The warm breath bouncing back from the wool warmed our red noses. While our world, MIT, went about its hectic business, we sat there undisturbed, saying a thing or two every now and then, laughing at our friends, and just appreciating how far away we felt from all the stress in our lives on such a slow-paced Saturday morning. At that moment, hyggelig shielded me from the horrors of MIT and a summer job search.
“Basically there is this Norwegian word hyggelig…” I explained to Turner. As I explained, I realized how lucky I am to know the word hyggelig, how lucky I am to have three languages at my disposal.
* * *
Being trilingual has always been my ice breaker. A recent dinner with my floormates-plus-dates where everyone introduced themselves went something like this:
“I can firebreathe.”
“I was born in Brazil.”
“I have a motorcycle license.”
Then me: “I am trilingual.”
Recently I began wondering what it really means to be trilingual. How has being trilingual affected how I perceive the world? (Other than the fact that I will always have a thing for blond boys and aspire to master the Chinese harp.) After some research and thinking, I realized that a language is more than a set of words to communicate with; it is also the perception with which we see the world. Someone who is bilingual or trilingual is equipped with the advantage of alternate worldviews. Research done on the subject by psycholinguist Panos Athanasopoulos, as described in Nicolas Weiler’s article on bilingualism, shows that people who speak a certain language follow a certain perception pattern. For example, “Russian speakers are faster to distinguish shades of blue than English speakers…[a]nd Japanese speakers tend to group objects by material rather than shape, whereas Koreans focus on how tightly objects fit together” (Weiler, 2015). For bilinguals, the pattern that they follow is determined by the language they use more often or the language environment they are in (Newcastle University, 2011).
With this new insight in mind, I have become more aware of how speaking Chinese and Norwegian affects my perception of the world. Chinese is the language that I have always taken for granted. It was never cool to speak Chinese until MIT, where more Caucasians speak Chinese than on any other campus in the US. It has always been the language I don’t like to use in public, to avoid being mistaken for a loud tourist. But in many ways, it is very obviously my first language. For instance, I am better at watching movies without subtitles in Chinese. What’s better, I actually know what different vegetables are called in Chinese. In my head they are all pronounced in my mom’s voice followed by the words “is good for you.” (In English they are all vegetable to me.)
Another way in which Chinese affects my perception of the world is with its subtle distinctions between different kinds of relatives. English groups all female relatives who are siblings of one’s parents under “aunt” and male ones under “uncle.” In Chinese, an aunt is called yi on the maternal side and gugu on the paternal side. An uncle is called jiujiu on the maternal side and shushu on the paternal side. There are further distinctions for aunts- and uncles-in-law that I won’t go into here. Furthermore, the oldest aunt on the maternal side is often called dayi, literally meaning “eldest aunt” (or “big aunt”), and the youngest is called xiaoyi, “youngest aunt” (or “little aunt”). An interesing distinction is made for grandparents. On the paternal side, grandfather is yeye, which is what an English-Chinese dictionary would tell you. On the maternal side, however, the word is waigong, which literally means “outside grandfather,” suggesting a level of removedness between him and his grandchildren. This is a great example of language reflecting on culture. In this case, the distinction between the two words for grandfather reflects on the traditional Chinese idea that the father’s side of the family has a more legitimate claim to the children. As a result of the Chinese perception on relatives, I find myself asking for specification when someone says “my aunt” or “my grandfather.” Not knowing what side of the family, say the aunt, is from almost feels like I’m not getting the most basic information.
Unlike Chinese, Norwegian has always been the language to show off. Because my impulsive dad decided to get his PhD there, I spent four years of blissful childhood in Bergen, Norway. Snow reminds me of Norway. And playgrounds as well. Because I left Norway when I was ten, I never got past elementary-school vocabulary and grammar level. But in the end it is my second language, even before English, and there are some words that are more intuitive to me in Norwegian than in English, such as snow, snø, playground, lekeplass, and friends, vener.
Norwegian is a very casual language. If French is on one end of the polite spectrum, Norwegian is on the other. “Please,” vær så snill, and “may,” kunne, are not commonly used words. “When you ask somebody something in the form of ‘can you…’, that is already polite enough, and the “please” wouldn’t be necessary. It would just sound ridiculous” (Quenut, 2008). In Norwegian culture, there is less distance between authority figures and those under them, such as between teachers and students. In Norway you call most people, including teachers, by their first names. Just now I had to look up the words “mister” and “misses” in Norwegian because I had never used them before (Herr and fru). As a result of the traits of the Norwegian language and culture, it is very easy for two people speaking Norwegian to feel like buddies. The way this perspective affects my life is through my text conversations with my dad. We like to text in Norwegian. (In the conversation captured in the screenshot, I had just arrived in Spain, and he was asking about how I was doing.) Texting in Norwegian is actually highly impractical for us because we both lack vocabulary and resort to Norwenglish, but it makes us feel more like “bros” than father and daughter. This is confirmed by the fact that texting with my dad in Chinese feels strange and overly formal.
* * *
A language doesn’t just add to our perception, but also our capacity for expression. Languages develop to serve the needs of a group of people of a certain culture, and different cultures cultivate languages with a different set of words. For example, the Inuits have countless words for variations of snow, including “qinuq—best for building an igloo” and “aniuk—that a dog eats” (Boinod, 267). The Chinese, similarly, have a whole calendar dedicated to the cultivation of tea that is still used today (Boinod, 313). There are certainly words that we would never have any kind of use for, such as nakhur, “a Persian word…meaning a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled” and areodjarekput, “the Inuit word for ‘to exchange wives for a few days only” (Boinod, 9). However, there are words in other languages that would allow English-speakers to more concisely and elegantly express themselves. One example is the Spanish word enfundarla, meaning “to put one’s penis back in one’s pants (or one’s sword back in its sheath” (Boinod, 125). It would be difficult to argue against the usefulness of this word. More romantically, there is the Brazilian Portuguese word cafuné, which meaning “The act of tenderly running your fingers through the hair of somebody you love” (Sanders, 153). Or the Urdu word naz, “the pride and assurance that comes from knowing you are loved unconditionally” (Sanders, 140). When these long definitions are condensed into one word, they become infinitely more powerful. One example that I can testify to is the Chinese word xingfu, feeling extremely happy and blessed. I cannot say the words “happy” or “blessed” and experience the intensity of happiness and blessedness that xingfu captures.
* * *
As I finish work on this essay I am staying in a dorm building in Paris filled with students from all over the world with different world perceptions and equipped with all sorts of words that don’t exist in English. (To give English some credit, my new French friends have confirmed that bromance and cheap don’t have equivalents in colloquial French.) When I met someone from Italy here, one of my first questions was whether or not he uses the words spaghettata, a spaghetti dinner, and commuovere, describing a story that moves the reader to tears, Italian words that I had come across in my research for this essay. When I told him that the words do not have equivalents in English, he was at first very surprised and dubious before actually thinking about it and realizing that it was true. Those words play a part in shaping how he sees the world—how he assumes everyone sees the world. It was hard for him to imagine that others get by without having those words in their lexicon.
Languages shape how we see the world. Being trilingual gives me more perception and expression—a bigger world and a wider mouth. It is more than an ice breaker, but I will not stop using it as one. What can I say, I feel xingfu for being able to feel hyggelig.
Aniuk – (Snow) that a dog eats
Areodjarekput – To exchange wives for a few days only
Cafuné – The act of tenderly running your fingers through the hair of somebody you love
Commuovere – Describing a story that moves the reader to tears
Dayi – The eldest aunt on the maternal side
Enfundarla – To put one’s penis back in one’s pants (or one’s sword back in its sheath)
Fru – Misses
Gugu – Aunt on the paternal side
Herr – Mister
Hygge – See hyggelig
Hyggelig – Coziness, togetherness and well-being—or being curled up on a soft red couch with a cup of hot chocolate between your hands surrounded by family and friends while it’s snowing outside and the fireplace is crackling, throwing a warm ambience about the room.
Jiujiu – Uncle on the maternal side
Lekeplass – Playground
Nakhur – A camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled
Naz – The pride and assurance that comes from knowing you are loved unconditionally
Qinuq – (Snow) best for building an igloo
Shushu – Uncle on the paternal side
Snø – Snow
Spaghettata – Spaghetti dinner
Vener – Friends
Waigong – Grandfather on the maternal side
Xiaoyi – The youngest aunt on the maternal side
Xingfu – Feeling extremely happy and blessed
Yeye – Grandfather on the paternal side
Yi – Aunt on the maternal side
“Guzheng.” Wikipedia. 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guzheng>.
Jacot de Boinod, Adam. The Meaning of Tingo. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
McLendon, Russell. “How ‘hygge’ Can Help You Get through Winter.” Mother Nature Network (2013). Mother Nature Network. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://www.mnn.com/family/family-activities/blogs/how-hygge-can-help-you-get-through-winter>.
Newcastle University. “Bilinguals see the world in a different way, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 March 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110314132531.htm>.
Nie, Helen. “Helen Sledding in Norway.” 2004. JPEG file.
Nie, Helen. “Texts with Dad.” 2015. JPEG file.
“Norwegian ‘Politeness’” Random Thoughts on Norway. Blogspot, 7 May 2008. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://randomthoughtsonnorway.blogspot.com/2008/05/norwegian-politeness.html>.
Sanders, Ella. Lost in Translation. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2014. Print.
Weiler, Nicholas. “Speaking a Second Language May Change How You See the World.” AAAS. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://news.sciencemag.org/brain-behavior/2015/03/speaking-second-language-may-change-how-you-see-world>.