My tongue was meant to hold the weight of another language. I repeated this line while looking in the mirror. Wrote it down in my journal. I even posted it on the back of my bedroom door. It was my mantra when I arrived in Lima, Peru in 2011. And it kept me going through the mind-numbing two-hour-long conferences in Spanish, the duh-dumb moments when I couldn’t make heads or tails of what someone was saying, and the subsequent focus groups and surveys I had to coordinate in ESPAÑOL.

Since the age of 12, I had an incessant desire to hear my tongue dance with Spanish. I took courses in high school and as an undergraduate, but never had the opportunity to immerse myself in the language until I lived and worked in Peru.

But in my pursuit of Spanish ears and a Spanish tongue, I forgot there was another language (besides English) in the recesses of my mind–one that had been there since my childhood days in the Caribbean.

“As an immigrant, there is always concern over the loss of culture. Cuisine, language, and values are not like skin colour, passed genetically from one generation to the next.”

Surrounded by my family of origin, when proper English isn’t required, this other tongue unmasks itself. My accent moves from weak to strong. Sing-songy. Free. And I’m dancing with tongues like a holy-roller in a spirit-filled moment: English, Creole, colloquial Caribbean English and American/Canadian slang move seamlessly together.

English leads, dominant but loose with her partners.

“Look at de boy deh le.”

Rolling pin in hand, I warn my sister, “Watch out before I jook1 you in ya eye.”

Creole struts her stuff in short commands and phrases.

Garde ca!2” I chase the cat off the table. And my sister rushes forward to defend the poor jab3.

Bon Dieu!4” My mother’s hand flies to cover her mouth. She is watching the news. Someone has died.

All I possess of French Creole5 is a smattering of words and phrases. I cannot put together whole sentences, stories, histories. It comes out in short commands, or when my mind fails to find the proper English word. I speak it when a feeling or sentiment simply cannot be conveyed in English.

I asked my mother why she didn’t teach us Creole. Why only bits and pieces of a fuller language balance on our tongues? She blames her relationship with my father. He was from a different island where Creole wasn’t spoken.

I wonder, too, about my own choices. Why Spanish? I took one year of French in the Caribbean before moving to Canada. And in Canada, I had the option to do French immersion (84% of French Creole words originate from the French language). But I chose Spanish.

Even as a young adult, when I had the head space and freedom to explore the concept of identity, I turned my nose up at the Creole language. “It is such a hard and vulgar language,” I remember commenting to my mother.

Did I simply have a preference for Spanish? Or was I subconsciously distancing myself from my roots?

As an immigrant, there is always concern over the loss of culture. Cuisine, language, and values are not like skin colour, passed genetically from one generation to the next. They are learnt. But can I pass on bits and pieces of a language to my future progeny? Does it make sense to hold on to a language I barely know?

Maybe, in this moment, I should just enjoy this tongue and what it represents: a collage of identities, lovingly collected. Bits and pieces of a language that conjures up sun, sea and early childhood memories. A dance of tongues that reminds me over and over again about the culturally diverse, in-between world I reside in as an immigrant.

Footnotes

  1. poke.
  2. look at that.
  3. Devil.
  4. Good God.
  5. French Creole is a language spoken on the islands of Dominica, Haiti and St. Lucia.