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Mothering the Mother Tongue

Written By: Emily Dutch Linares on October 28, 2013 No Comment

In a seminar on multilingualism, we discussed Nancy Huston’s Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue, and Self (Nord Perdu). In this collection of essays, Huston reflects on her identity as a Canadian transplant living in France and on her changing relationship to her mother tongue, English, and to her acquired language, French. While I resonate with her writing in several ways, I am particularly struck by the unnatural quality that her native language acquires. Huston writes that “the acquisition of the foreign tongue destroys the “naturalness” of the first; from then on, nothing can be self-evident in any tongue; nothing belongs to you wholly and irrefutably; nothing will ever ‘go without saying’ again.”

I sometimes feel like a foreigner in English, my native tongue. Having studied French for many years and having dabbled in Italian, Spanish, and, now, Portuguese, I occasionally find myself speaking with hesitance in English. I question my use of a certain word or construction, or I search for the appropriate term, which hovers just out of reach. I wonder if I am using a “real” English expression, or if the apparent “naturalness” of a certain phrase is influenced by one of the Romance languages that I have studied. I, too, am painfully aware of the fact that “nothing will ever ‘go without saying’ again.” It is unsettling to realize that we are somewhat estranged from a language that was once all our own– a language in which words flowed freely and naturally. Huston makes a distinction between our mother tongue, which belongs to us and mothers us, and our adopted tongue, which we must mother and master. Yet in light of the eventual “unnaturalness” of our native language, must we mother more than our adopted tongue? Must we mother the language that once mothered us, as well? Once we begin to live between languages, can we ever feel completely at home in any one of them? In the words of Nancy Huston, “Could it be that in my mother tongue, I can accept myself only as a ‘foreigner’?”

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