I am a Mexican exchange student in China for the Spring semester of 2017. That's all you need to know.
I say: "wo xuexi le hanyu yi ge yue zai moxige before coming to China (中国)" and they nod and smile. Then I show them I can write some characters in chinese. "Cat" (猫) "Fox" (狸) "Dog" (狗), and I say "I learnt fox the other day. I went to a coffeeshop with a friend and she taught me" There is surprise in their faces. They think I learn fast. I don't. My pronunciation is awful. "Wo de hanyu bu hao" but they always say "Well it is good for a foreigner", "but you are not studying it", "you've only been here for three months". I feel frustrated and happy. A weird combination. Then a Mexican friend of mine says to me "pinche idioma feo" and I giggle. I say nothing. I think "I guess learning other languages has just made me more tolerant about it".
I know many times languages won't make sense, there are rules without explanations and as I attended a Spanish for foreigners class the other day, I think Spanish is, too, a pain in the ass.
As I wander in this city full of people, I grasp part of conversations, sometimes I can identify which language someone is speaking and sometimes I can speak it too. "Tu est francais?" "Belge", "Tu es francais?" "Oui, de Paris" and how romantic. I ended up kissing that boy that night. And I thought "I guess that is the dream. Kissing a boy from Paris" and I talked to my 12-year-old self who didn't like french homework: "See, it paid off". (And yes, I talk to her in English, not in Spanish).
Then I met a girl whose major was Swedish and when she said that I, smiling, overexcited, say "Jag can talar svenska." And she was so freaking shocked. Like, really, her mouth almost fell to the floor. Why would a Mexican speak Swedish? And why is that language useful in China? well, it is not. And it is. We became friends. "Why did you learn it?" "For fun. I just studied it one semester". and because I liked Ingmar Bergman. Because I thought the language sounded beautiful. Because I really liked A Swedish Love Story. We had a conversation about Swedish language, about traveling and studying and all that. Now every time I see her on campus we say hi to each other. And of course I feel less alone. So I made a Chinese friend not because I can speak Chinese or because she is fluent in english (she is) but because I was able to say "Vad heter du?"
Another time, a teacher asked us to write a poem using our native language and then translating it to English. "Use five words who you think are the most beautiful, and use them in the poem". And so I do. But then, I approach my professor frustrated. "I can't do it." "Why?" "Because this word doesn't exist in English". "Madrugada" doesn't have a translation into English. "Early morning", "early dawn", it is not the same.
I feel there is a huge difference between "amanecer" and "madrugada". The first can mean hope, or parting, even regret from last night. But the other... "madrugada" is you walking in the dark streets of any city, with your friends, a bit dizzy, a bit drunk, a bit in love. That's why I like "madrugada" better than "early morning" or anything else.
And in a "madrugada", after a club I take a cab in the never-ending city of Beijing with my friend from Mexico. We had so much fun with a bunch of foreigners who can't speak Chinese, and who say things like "I cannot wait for it to be July so I can go back to Rome", "Y yo soy Español, hostia!", and we laughed. But in our way back we are once again alone with the "beijingner", and the one who does not speak English at all: a late hours taxi driver. So we say "Beiwai"(That's the name of my uni in Chinese). He drives. We are happy, excited, and quite afraid. But we ignore the last part of that sentence and start speaking in Spanish. Then the taxi driver interrupts us, he said something. My friend is studying Chinese but she can't understand a thing. So I say "zen ma, zen ma?" (Sorry, what?) --As if I knew! And then a miracle happens! I understand two words! I feel so happy it is stupid (and not at all). "Na li" I know it means where. So I take a guess and reply: "Wo men shi mo xi ge ren". "We are mexicans", "Somos mexicanas", "Nous sommes mexicaines", "Vi är mexikaner", "mekishiko hitodesu"... but of all of them, just one worked and one I knew "wo men shi moxigeren". He smiled and laughed. He said we were very pretty. "Xie xie", then again he asked us something. I couldn't understand. "Zen ma?" He spoke slower. I understood the phrase. I laughed so hard because I was surprised by the question, he laughed because he was surprised I understood. "Mei you, mei you". My friend look at me quite lost. What was going on? The language barrier was down for me to some extent, however she didn't know I laughed cause the taxi driver asked if we had boyfriends, and I, embarrassed by his question, said we didn't. When I explained to her, once we were in campus again, she said "And I'm the one who is studying chinese..." I don't know how I was able to have a conversation with a chinese taxi driver either, but I did. "Maybe it is because you have studied languages". Maybe.
But you know, there is this theory about people being different depending on the language they are speaking. Also, now many monolingual people (specially English speakers) regret not knowing more languages. As for us, who speak at least two languages, we might think about it deeply: who am I in English? Who am I in Spanish? and even in French... and how exhausting it can be sometimes, not speaking in your mother tongue for a while.
I can share one secret with you: for me Spanish is home. It is comfort. It is the starbucks coffeeshop round the corner where I study other languages but where I feel at ease. "Un café americano. Mediano. Sin leche. ¿Quién le pone leche al café?" and not "yi ge... yi ben? meiguo...meishui kafei... ah? eh? ah! Dui, re. Bu 'milk' (I have to look up my phone now) Bu munai (also, i used my fingers to stress the mispronounced tones)" I finish saying that, exhausted, confused. Just asking for a coffee without milk is a whole thing. I'm never exhausted in Spanish.
English, well...If I do sometimes forget words I can at least substitute them with others, and it is not bad at all. English is my language for adventures and making friends. Even a bit of a show-off when I say "my mother tongue is Spanish". English, if not comfort, is security.
We must accept is dominance in the world, which allows you to communicate with a wide range of people anywhere. Just the other day I was able to find the police station for an interview about my visa because I asked a Chinese girl "I am lost, do you know where is this place?" and she understood me.
Mikhail Bakhtin said "...language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between ones' self and the other..." So even when we learn and master, two, three, four, five languages, I guess there will always be an otherness in that which isn't (y)our mother tongue, some kind of mystery, but also some "appropriation" of the language, as we become fluent and we make it our own. We will be, both a self and another. Isn't that interesting?
So for me, Spanish is comfort and home. It is discussing with my mother, it is petting my dog, it is playing at my grandma's garden when I was eight, it is coffee-made-easy. It is home.
English is poetry and beauty. After all, I decided to study English literature 'cause I found it entrancing. But it is also security. Security in this vast world. And of course, the possibility of making friends despite where we are and where we come from. So English is also fun, adventures and good times. English is my abroad self. The one with less worries, or different worries who do not seem too bad.
As for French, well, I've never been to Paris before, but I guess it is true, at least for me, that French is the language of love! even if it is just for one night at a Beijing club.