Dragan Todorovic is a Serbian journalist and editor who emigrated in 1995 from Yugoslavia to Canada, where he wrote in English and did multimedia work, winning various awards. His latest piece is “In My Language I am Smart (The Immigrant Song),” which is linked from this page of his website; it’s an audio clip a few minutes long consisting of him talking about having to communicate in a new language, mixed with various sounds. It’s very effective; I particularly liked this bit, addressed to a woman he’s trying to make time with: “If we spoke in my language, you would have fallen in love with me three hours ago. Can you just love me now and understand me later?” Oh, and “HMS Concise Oxford comes to my rescue.”
Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to the clip at the moment, read the Notes a bit further down the page:
…Language is acquired with its sound, and the sounds I had picked from records and movies were harsh, aggressive, and presented me in a very different light from who I was and am. Suddenly I realized that somewhere in the process of acquiring the tone of modern English I had lost my identity. It was painful to realize that in my language I was smart, but I sounded stupid in English. Example: while walking with my Canadian friend one day by a church, he started talking about the architecture of that particular building, and while I wanted to say a few things about how I liked the Gothic details on the arch at the entrance, and how I admired the intelligent choice of stones, all I could squeeze out was, “Yeah, it’s cool”.
Acquired meaning is superficial. Sound puts word into context, but the deeper shades of expression are not learned. I responded the way that Clint Eastwood, or some other action hero, would in one of their roles. Back in Serbian language I was connoisseur of arts; in my newly acquired language I was a cop…
(Via wood s lot.)