Tuesday, 16 April 2024
Englishman in Dubrovnik Englishman in Dubrovnik

Lost in Translation: The Evolution of Language and Identity in Multilingual Worlds

Written by  Oct 15, 2023

“A different language is a different vision of life.” How can someone forget their own language? Believe me it is possible.

Even though I had never been particularly successful at learning languages in my formative years I have always been fascinated by them. Languages are fluid, new words enter the dictionary, words change their meaning and the power of words should never be underestimated. The pen is mightier than the sword.

And verbal communication in different languages requires special skills. Where to put the emphasis, which length of letter and which mouth shape.

I have lived in Dubrovnik for over 25 years and only a handful of people actually say my name correctly. 99.9 percent use a Croatian spin on my name. And the same spin is also used when referring to my mother, Wendy, which usually sounds like Vendi.

And my mother has just gone home after spending ten days with us. This of course gave me a chance to speak my mother tongue constantly (a rare opportunity) but on the flip side it clearly had an effect on my Croatian.

“Oh, you can see that your mother is staying with you,” joked one friend as I once again tripped over my tongue trying to finish a sentence in Croatian. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth where sounding weird, but I couldn’t seem to do anything to change how they sounded. I sounded like a Croatian how had lived in Texas for the past 20 years.

And the more I concentrated on correctly myself the more unnatural it sounded.

So I have met many Croatian diaspora, both here and on foreign soil, and the vast majority prefer to speak the language of the country they live in. I can understand this with second or third generations, but I’ve met quite a few first generations who also shy away from Croatian.

“Would you mind if we spoke English,” said one Croatian to me once in New York.

I could see he was struggling in his mother tongue. “Where are you from,” I asked. “From New Jersey, but I was born in Lapad,” he smiled somewhat sheepishly.

Can you forget your own language? Not completely, but you can get to the situation where you feel more comfortable in your second language than your first. And it isn’t only the language skills that fall away, it is also the accent. I can usually spot after a few seconds where someone lives from their accent. In English I really have an ear for this. I can usually locate the region that an English speaker comes from in a matter of seconds.

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And although I try to keep my own English language at a Queen’s English or neutral level I have developed an accent of a country that I’ve never even visited. For some mysterious reason I know have a slight South African accent.

In fact, many English people who have lived overseas for an extended period of time tend to get a South African twang.

I guess this is the nature and nurture argument. We all are to a certain extent the product of our surroundings. I am always in awe when someone speaks multiple languages, I don’t think my brain has enough space to remember all those words, let alone all that grammar.

Of course, I was born in a country that is well known for its lack of foreign communication skills. I literally don’t know anyone back in England who knows more than just a handful of words in French let alone able to actually converse. Yes, we are naturally lazy because wherever we travel people speak English to some degree.

When I speak Croatian with my wife in England the look on people’s faces is sheer surprise.

Would I lose my Croatian if I moved back to the UK? To some level yes. In the same way that the Croatian diaspora finds it easier to speak English. There is a phrase about languages, that could be used to cover other abilities, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

I hadn’t spoken much Croatian for just ten days and already my tongue was starting to tie itself in knots.   

Read more Englishman in Dubrovnik…well, if you really want to

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About the author
Mark Thomas (aka Englez u Dubrovniku) is the editor of The Dubrovnik Times. He was born and educated in the UK and moved to live in Dubrovnik in 1998. He works across a whole range of media, from a daily radio show to TV and in print. Thomas is fluent in Croatian and this column is available in Croatia on the website – Dubrovnik Vjesnik

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