Do you speak a foreign language? Go ahead, say Si, Oui, or Igen. Great! Now say everything else you know in that language, go ahead, speak for five minutes, fifteen minutes, for as long as you can. Say everything you know in that language, from asking for coffee or directions to pleading with a lover. How long does it take until your knowledge is exhausted?
Now imagine that you have to work in that language. That you have to read, write, pass oral exams in a doctoral program, teach students (all your insecurities will multiply astronomically in front of an audience of bored twenty-year-old native speakers), apply for jobs, be promoted, talk to your boss and socialize with your colleagues in this foreign language.
This is what it means to be an immigrant in the United States—among other things.
(You are going to read this differently if you’re bilingual. That is, if your mother tongue isn’t English and you had to learn English in school and now speak it with an accent; or if you grew up with two or three languages spoken around you; or, like one amazing individual I once met, if your native tongue is English, but you’ve dedicated your life to learning and translating literatures and are able to speak something like eight or nine languages by now.)
But I craved this experience of bilingualism. Growing up in an ethnically diverse region in Romania, where many families included members who were German, Hungarian, Jewish, Serbian, and Romanian, it was not unusual for some kids to speak three or four different languages, simply by growing up in that environment. I envied that plurality. In Romanian, the only language I spoke, they had accents, mispronounced words, sometimes used unusual syntactic constructions. But then other Hungarian kids would come around, or their German mothers would call them home, and there they were, suddenly metamorphosed into foreigners, voicing unexpected rhythms, vowels, feelings.
There was one family my parents were friends with, who lived on the same floor (the sixth) in our apartment building: the mother was Hungarian and knew Romanian too. The father knew German and Romanian (he was an engineer at the train carriage factory) and he had learned Hungarian too, so that he could speak it with his wife. Their children (a girl older than me and a boy who was a little younger) spoke all three languages.
I envied them: I only spoke Romanian. On various occasions when we visited, Cati, the mother, would ask them to perform some small duty, like bring sugar for coffee or answer the phone, reverting to familiar Hungarian, then switch back to Romanian to speak to my parents. If the kids misbehaved, the father would intervene in German, calling them to order in a language that seemed designed especially for that.
Years later, as an immigrant, I am grateful for new syntax and intonation, for being able to switch back and forth. There is a quote by one of the great linguists of our time (either Chomsky or Piaget), something to the extent that “he who speaks two languages has two souls.” I am grateful for a new soul; but as of now, most of my feelings are untranslatable longings, or dor.