I have a problem. I have finally realized, after decades of digging for something that sets my soul on fire, of searching for just the right epithet to adequately nominate my passion, that the moment has finally come. For better or for worse, I am now attuned to the fact that the rest of my life must be devoted entirely to language — to sipping on the sweet juices of fluency and bathing in the endless streams of meaning of other worlds.
To say this was a conscious choice would be reductive, for it feels like I’ve spent the majority of my undergraduate career dubiously poring over a monstrous heap of scrap at the local junkyard, trying to parse out every man’s trash from my personal treasure. Within the last month, though, I have uncovered what feels like the holy grail in my hands.
Semantics, strummed through chords of syntax and sentence structure, are my symphony. Language is all-encompassing — it’s fascinating how subordinate we are to the sounds and slices of meaning that cut up our world. Many of us think that language is a tertiary step in the perception of our reality and that each word is meaningfully attributed to the objects around us, a process as banal as assigning mere terms to mere images. Not only is this explanation intensely lackluster, but it is also, in my opinion, completely incorrect.
When we speak, our lips and vocal cords create magic. Our words manifest reality.
This manifestation is what’s known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: The idea that languages don’t just contribute to the way we perceive our world — they are the way we perceive our world. The hypothesis posits that we are mere serfs to our mother tongue, subservient to the vocabulary available in our language, and that how we think is limited by what we can utter.
It’s quite simple, and almost suspiciously susceptible, to discredit the influence that language has on our lives. Our linguistic definition of time, for example, measurably affects our saving behavior. Speakers of futureless languages where you would say “tomorrow it rains” rather than “it will rain tomorrow,” are 31% more likely to have saved money in any given year, 24% less likely to smoke and 29% more likely to be physically active. That’s because languages that do not differentiate between the present and future have speakers that are encouraged to make more future-oriented choices.
Another great example of feelings directly being constrained through vocabulary is German, with its numerous strings of meanings that simply do not have an English translation. It’s not that we haven’t felt schadenfreude or gemütlichkeit before, but not having a singular word for those associations makes it nearly impossible to vocalize the essence of such feelings.
If education opens up windows of new opportunities, then to gain insight into a new language, to acquire and master scripts and soliloquies in an entirely foreign medium, is to blow apart the walls of the house entirely. Ich kann alles und irgendwas mit anderen Worten sagen, die ich nie auf Englisch ausdrücken könnte. Je peux parler et penser sur différents niveaux. Je peux créer des mondes jamais vus auparavant.
You begin to feel feelings in different dimensions: Sadness is no longer a meager melancholy malaise, it’s saudade; depression becomes more than enumerative ennui, it becomes тоска; unconditional attraction is no longer simply love, it’s ʿعشق (išq). As a writer, the freedom granted to me through multilingualism is everything I could ever ask or beg for. But this value wasn’t always so apparent or appreciated.
I grew up with two distinct mother tongues, and they couldn’t be more dissimilar. When I speak Russian, I like to imagine that it flows like honey off my lips. In all actuality, it is not very refined: My accent protrudes, my sentences break syntactic rules and I have a tendency to repeat similar phrases that I otherwise cannot find vocabulary for. Still, it’s the only language that my family speaks, and when I speak it, I taste an intimacy that I cannot quite describe. I feel at my most essential when I call and beckon in Russian, as if the Cyrillic script can penetrate the cortical layers of my brain in a way that other languages cannot.
Yet, when I intend to profess, when I intend to orate and persuade and enchant, I rely on English. I’ve attained a level of academic and colloquial fluency in English that I otherwise cannot reach in Russian — when speaking to friends, professors, and to you, my audience, English becomes my mother tongue. When I speak it, I dance. Words flutter in my mind and land and erupt in harmonious poetry, following a pentameter that varies with each cue and declension, deviating and diverging as its meaning unfurls. My A-tier vocabulary and flexible equipment of expressions are startlingly unusual for an immigrant, and the only language I truly have an accent in is absolutely not English.
In turn, such a fluent-familiar dichotomy has caused great dissonance in my mind for quite some time. One tongue is decisively mine, taking root in my family tree — an intimacy that cannot be easily revoked — despite my underdeveloped fluency. And the other tongue is a stranger, someone with stiff, cold hands who smokes distance and brevity into my lungs, but whom I crave and cannot bear to live without.
For much of my life, I had preemptively convinced myself that I was trapped in such a cycle — doomed to swing like a pendulum between strange fluency and erratic intimacy. No one place or voice was just right for me.
If you had told me, when I was still young, raw and vulnerable, that acquiring foreign languages would unlock and reframe my self-identity, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would’ve laughed you off. In fact, I did. I scoffed at my middle school teacher when he made us read Le Petit Prince. I admonished my mother for making me take French lessons for half a decade. She herself had spent years acquiring French in school, before she immigrated and began to prioritize English, and was seemingly adamant that I should grow up as more than a bilingual speaker. Inconceivable verbiage and senseless conjugations were shoved down my teenage throat, and I, in rebellion, began to hate the very thing I’m preaching for today.
My disdain skyrocketed after my AP French exam — where I scored only a two — despite years of pounding être tenses into my brain. I felt like I had failed; clearly, my effort had been applied in vain, and time was just taunting me through the promise of fluency.
And yet, my world inverted when I stumbled upon German — it was something new. It was something alluring. I soon decided to spend the winter of my junior year of college in Berlin. I was ready to hit the ground running, conversing with strangers and friends alike, tumbling through niche phrases and elucidating abstract phenomena in the Germanic dialect. This, however, was not my reality.
I spent my first few weeks in Berlin in silence. Isolated in a studio apartment with blank-white walls and distanced from my closest friends by thousands of miles, I became starved for human interaction. Despite how much I wanted to chat up the elderly couple poised on the park bench, or ask the cashier ringing me up how their day was going, I could not. I was afraid of being laughed at, of having intentional meaning misconstrued, of being judged for my accent. In an almost evil way, I finally felt what my parents must’ve felt upon arrival in America — sanctioned to silence by fear of being misunderstood.
I began to fight for fluency through ferocity, obstinately determined to understand what I yet could not. I would listen to podcasts during my commutes to class and practice vocabulary recall through context, squinting at advertisements plastered inside the tram as I tried to make sense of what was being conveyed. Not again, I’d mutter to myself, never would I surrender again. And somehow, along the way, between brute bull-headedness and ephemeral self-will, I fell back into love with language.
After years of defiance and distaste for language acquisition, the trajectory of my life had pulled me right back into linguistic immersion, drowning me in its awe. I guess sometimes we have to prove ourselves wrong before we admit that others are right.
Language has become a way of rebranding myself. Redefining myself. Recreating worlds that already exist within me. With every new Russian idiom I pick up and with each new stroke I master in Hangul, I expose yet another undiscovered self.
In the most paradoxical of ways, I am also starting to realize that I am more than what I speak. I am no longer a victim of my vocabulary — I have new ways of affirming myself, deciding myself and breathing meaning within myself. Gone is the bilingual dissonance that used to perturb me, as I am no longer left feeling incoherently incomplete due to my vernacular.
I can transcend the spoken word. What I cannot express in one language, I can easily communicate in another. I might be more with language, but I am also more than just language. I am the same story, retold in different dialects and transcribed through different scripts. I am my own harbinger of meaning — I am my own Rosetta stone.
I have become addicted to uncovering new meanings like hidden treasures, to sipping and slurping on fresh knowledge as I heed the path to fluency. I have finally discovered a power within myself that I never acknowledged existed. I cannot continue to live if I cannot continue to hear and breathe other languages.
But perhaps, a tragedy has occurred. Perhaps, a glass has been knocked over on the counter, and, in the distance, I feel the faint resonance of shards careening across the kitchen floor. Perhaps, I hear exclamations coming from the living room, shouts and screams of shock. But perhaps, I do not hear anything at all. Perhaps — and quite likely — I am going deaf.
It took weeks for me to feel comfortable speaking German. It took years for me to sharpen my comprehension skills. And it took me decades to finally realize the value of language. But it took me only one warm day in September to learn that the ability that feeds my linguistic passion is now fading from my eyes with each breath. Heave-ho. In … and out.
So much drive and determination spent devoted to the languages of others. So many hours spent listening to podcasts until my brain began to bleed, and so much mental real estate dedicated to foreign vocabulary. And now, what has enabled me to reinvigorate my life with joy and purpose — what has made it possible for me to listen to the stories of strangers — is an ability I soon may no longer possess.
How ironic it is, that after spending the majority of my life unfurling the nature of my desires, I have lost the key before I’ve even opened the door. The universe, I believe, enjoys taunting me, poking its spindly fingers in my face and seeing just how much it’ll take to break me.
But I am nothing if not an optimist. And the goal I’ve been tasked with now is the challenge of remaining present.
So I may be losing hair cells in my inner ear. I may no longer be able to drown myself in the vocals of my favorite music, blasting foreign lyrics into my head beyond reasonable decibel levels. I may have started to look at mouths more adamantly in conversation, as I attempt to connect morphemes to lip movement. And even though I may be losing a part of myself, I realize I haven’t lost it yet.
Even with all the breath exculpated from my lungs, as I sleep fraught with worry, and even as my knees remain scarred from pleading for forgiveness on my bedroom carpet, I have come to realize that the universe has actually gifted me a blessing. It has provided me with a new perspective.
With the realization of what I may come to lose, I have developed a heightened appreciation for the abilities I still retain. Now, I try to listen closely. I listen diligently. I practice gratitude with the most banal of tasks, from watching the German news in the morning to observing the sweet flow and cadence of my father’s voice. I indulge in the stories and ruminations of my friends like it may be the last time I hear their voices. I am attempting to hear with my heart.
In quite an unexpected way, my love for language has been reborn once more, as we often cannot feel full gratitude for the things we have now until we’re about to lose them. I think I am slowly beginning to re-learn what it means to listen.
In a few months, I will have a follow-up appointment with an audiologist, where I’ll finally be presented with a diagnosis outlining the extent of my condition. I will have my prognosis jotted down on paper, and my abilities restricted to a set of refined and arbitrary medical definitions. My hearing loss, along with my most menacing fears, will become official. But until then — and for as long as the universe will allow me to — I will continue to listen with fire in my lungs until I begin to hear others speak colors and mumble symphonies.
Statement Deputy Editor Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.