Speaking in Tongues

National Dress of St. Lucia

My tongue was meant to hold the weight of another language. I repeated this line to myself while looking in the mirror. Wrote it down in my journal. And 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 2 hour long conferences in Spanish; the duh-dumb moments when I couldn’t make head or tail 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 had taken courses in high-school and undergraduate but never had the opportunity to immerse myself in the language until Peru.

But in my pursuit of having Spanish ears and a Spanish tongue, had I forgotten that besides English, there was another tongue that resided in the recesses of my mind since my childhood days in the Caribbean?

Surrounded by my family of origin, when the English is looser, 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 jook you in ya eye.”

Creole struts her stuff in short commands and phrases.

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

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

All I possess of French Creole is a smattering of words and phrases. I cannot put together whole sentences, stories and histories. It comes out in short commands, or when my mind has forgotten the English word for an object. I speak it when a feeling or sentiment cannot be conveyed in English.

I asked my mother, why she didn’t teach us Creole. Why only bits and pieces of a full language balance on my tongue? She blames her relationship with my father. He was from a different island where Creole wasn’t spoken. Plus the general sentiment on St. Lucia was that learning Creole would interfere with learning English.

Then I wonder at my own choices. Why did I choose Spanish? I took a year of French in the Caribbean before I moved 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 whole concept of identity, I turned my nose up at the 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 engaging in an act of assimilation: distancing myself from my roots in order to fit into an English Canadian culture?

Buljoi-A Caribbean dish

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

Elizabeth Nunez, a Caribbean-American author, in one of her novels describes the immigrant experience as living in an in-between world. Not fully Caribbean. And not fully American. Continuously, there is a negotiation of what to forget and what to embrace.

Maybe I am having an identity crisis? As I approach 30 there is a push to determine what to hold on to. What parts of being a Canadian do I embrace and what parts of being a Caribbean woman do I embrace? And then what parts of this collage of identities should I pass onto my future progeny? Is Creole sacred enough to pass on? I don’t know.

Maybe, in this moment, I should just enjoy this tongue. Enjoy the bits and pieces of a language that conjures up sun and sea. Enjoy the dance of tongues that reminds me over and over again, that I am home.

French Creole is a language spoken on the islands of Dominica, Haiti and St. Lucia.

1) Jook- poke; 2)  Garde ca- look at that; 3) Jab – devil; 4) Bon Dieu – Good God

Images: Image 1,Image 2


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