Love in another language

Claire Kaufman/Courtesy

“I’ve been wondering if it is truly possible to have a relationship with someone to whom I can’t fully express myself, nor whom I completely understand,” I wrote in my journal March 22, two months into my study abroad experience in Santiago, Chile, and two weeks into dating el chico. Our closeness fluctuated with the fluidity of my speech and with the volatility of my confidence. My capricious emotional (in)stability was not limited to our relationship, though; I was 50 percent lost in almost every social interaction, and my understanding of the country and the culture was muddled and blurred.

Although I knew the mechanics of Spanish when I first arrived in Chile this spring, my conversational skills were subpar. With an easy schedule and no extra commitments (thank you, study abroad), I prioritized socializing — with whomever and whenever. I knew that if I wanted to make friends, I would have to spit my choppy, awkward Spanish at my classmates, strike up conversations with strangers on the metro, laugh at myself when I couldn’t pronounce the ñ or roll my R’s, constantly request explanations for the modismos (jargon/slang) I couldn’t find in the dictionary. Every night, I fell into bed, exhausted from the intense focus I had to put into conversing with my friends just to not get lost in conversations.

Even though I was making friends, I couldn’t help but consider that I didn’t really know my friends’ true personalities. I was constantly talking, but it almost felt as if it weren’t my voice — my person was engaged in activities that my conscious self couldn’t fully comprehend.

Around the one-month mark in Chile, I engaged in an inebriated, casual, sexual relation that forced me to confront this “power of language” face to face. When I realized that I could not express what I wanted and that our language barrier prevented any fluid dialogue, I felt like a rag doll. What more could he want than just sex if he could not know my personality? When I woke up, I felt even more ashamed of my inability to speak and left immediately, embarrassed and isolated.

I began to obsess over improving my fluidity in Spanish. It was like a love affair — I wanted and needed to spend as much time as possible with the language. I just couldn’t get enough. My day-to-day emotions were completely volatile, depending on my perceived language proficiency.

“I go from optimism to pessimism about my projected ability to ever be able to fully express myself in Spanish,” I wrote March 8. If I woke up and Skyped with a friend in English, I was convinced my Spanish would only be joltier and my day just generally worse. On the other hand, if I read a chapter of “Mala Onda” before I went to sleep, the day’s prospects were much brighter.

It was in the midst of this fervor that I began to date el chico. I wanted to be able to converse with him, to really know the person I was seeing and for him to really know me. We got close, but there was a level under which I couldn’t dig any deeper. El chico spoke to me differently from the way he spoke to his friends, and I soon realized I was getting an edited version of his being. As I spoke to him with my limited vocabulary and awkward grammar, I was sure the small things about my personality — my eccentricities and idiosyncrasies — were not breaking the language barrier. “I feel so stupid so often; my thoughts tend to come out as jumbled gibberish,” I wrote March 20.

With time, my Spanish did improve and, with it, my understanding of la onda (the vibe/essence) of el chico and of my other friends. I felt like an archaeologist or, maybe, a social anthropologist. Every day, I was scraping off a layer and understanding more about the history, the culture and the small peculiarities that made our respective thought processes different. I constantly sought to learn more about the culture and meet new people. I had time, and I wasn’t stressed. I was happy in Chile and proud of my Spanish.

It’s been proven that people can exhibit different types of selves in different environments. My new environment, represented by this new language, was the catalyst that brought forward a different self. Unconsciously, I began to develop a new personality in Spanish, one that I liked almost better than I liked myself in English. I found myself more relaxed, fun, enthusiastic and enamored by the challenge of understanding a culture and a people, and my place as a white, middle-class North American in Santiago.

I am not alone in this idea that it is possible to have a different personality in another language. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist who died in 1941, held that each language encodes a worldview that significantly influences its speakers. More recently, Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University and Robert Ward of Bangor University published a study that confirmed the language you’re speaking can affect the way you think. My roommate commented that she feels more confrontational in French; my friend from study abroad is more flirtatious and social in Spanish.

I was, and am still, falling in love with Spanish as a language and with Chile as a country and a community. I was infatuated with the quasi-dysfunctional populace restless for social change, whose student mobilizations — organized by my very own friends — repeatedly shut down main roads, halted both university and high school classes, and brought issues of equity, equality and justice to the forefront of the nation’s attention. I was captivated by the sense of community, in part represented by the universal soccer culture and insane street celebrations when Chile won la Copa America. My breath stopped when I reached the incredible Patagonian glaciers to the south. My eyes glazed over in admiration when I trekked through the vast, Dr. Seuss-like Atacama Desert to the north. My body melted when I reached the Pacific Ocean, so many kilometers below California.

On my last day in Chile, July 11, I wrote a goodbye poem to Santiago in my journal: “Chau Santiago.” Seven months spent trying to understand your complex, incredibly thoughtful (or, better, thought-provoking) people — striving to comprehend this seemingly functional, dysfunctional system that is weighed down with restlessness and impatience for a more just, more humane society. Every corner I turn, every new street I walk down, I find something new, vivid and unexpected. You never fail to surprise, you never fail to intrigue. Please, please don’t forget about me, and I promise I won’t forget about you.”

Still now I struggle with these feelings of separation. My love for Spanish is deeply intertwined with the Chilean people’s histories, their literature, their art and architecture, their food and landscape but, most of all, with my Spanish-speaking friends, who have met only my Spanish-speaking self.

So, no, I never fell in love with another person in another language. When I finally did feel confident in Spanish, I realized I had confused my passionate feelings about the language and the culture (maybe the challenge of understanding both) with a person. I had fallen in love with a place, with a feeling. And still now, when I speak in Spanish, this other side of myself surfaces again. It’s uncontrollable; it’s almost hormonal. It’s love in and of another language.