Hello and welcome to WNDB’s latest roundtable! I’m Sarah Hannah Gomez, a member of the WNDB team; writer and reader; and native English speaker who has varying levels of competency in a variety of languages as a result of growing up in a multicultural family, traveling a lot, and singing in a bunch of choirs.
I convened this panel of authors to talk about how they approach language in their books, and how they approach language in their lives. From growing up bilingual to holding hybrid languages in your head to using bits and pieces of other languages in their writing, these writers had a lot to say. Read on!
My first question: How were you raised with regard to language? Bilingual? Monolingual? Home language vs. school/outside language?
Tanaz Bhathena: I was raised in Saudi Arabia in a multi-lingual Indian household. At home, we spoke a mix of three languages: My mother tongue, which is a dialect of Gujarati native to the Parsi community in South Asia; Hindi, which is India’s (and Bollywood’s) language; and English, which was the language of instruction at the school I went to, run by the Embassy of India in Riyadh and later Jeddah.
Knowing how important English was to succeed and find jobs anywhere in the world, including India, my mother ensured that English became a part of our daily routine at home along with Gujarati. Though I also studied both Hindi and Arabic at school, these languages were always referred to as second and third languages in the curriculum.
S. Jae-Jones: I was born and raised in the US, specifically Los Angeles, which has a large population of non-English speakers. I was raised bilingual-ish; as my parents both worked full-time, my primary caretaker was my maternal grandmother, who speaks only Korean. I consider Korean my milk tongue, but I acquired English alongside Korean, so I consider both my native languages. In school I studied both French and Spanish, and consider myself extremely proficient in the latter. I was always very good at learning new languages, and I attribute that to the fact that I was raised with two.
Adi Alsaid: I was born in Mexico City to Israeli parents, so my first language was Hebrew, quickly followed by Spanish from the outside world. When I was four I started attending the American School Foundation, where I learned English from mostly American teachers. Early on in life, our home language was mostly hebrew, then my siblings and I started speaking to each other in Spanish. By high school, we were mostly speaking in English to each other, while our parents talked to us in Hebrew, and speaking a mix of English and Spanish with friends.
Elsie Chapman: I grew up in Canada in a bilingual household, speaking Chinese with my mom and English with my dad and siblings. This made home a mix of both languages. School was English only.
Zoraida Córdova: I was raised in Queens, New York. My language at home was Spanish. At school I was in bilingual classes until the 5th grade. That’s when I tested out of the bilingual classes and went English only.
Lots of people, from current language learners to longtime bilingual speakers, talk about dreaming in certain languages, thinking in certain others, or storing them in separate parts of their brain, so to speak. What is your own experience with regard to these phenomena?
Córdova: I dream and think in English. I don’t remember when the change happened. Spanish was my first language, and I spoke it exclusively until I was seven or so. I think the change was unconscious. I’ve never dreamed in Spanish.
Alsaid: Like my speaking habits, I mostly dream in English, with some Spanish interludes and a rare moment or two of Hebrew. In an early piece of writing, I remember saying that a native tongue is not one you were born into, or the one spoken in a country where you spent a lot of time, but one where you feel at home. I feel at home in English.
Jae-Jones: I dream in all the languages I know and have studied (English, Korean, Spanish, French, and now a little German and Japanese), and sometimes, after having watched a foreign film, I will dream in what my brain approximates is whatever language the film was in: Italian, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, etc.
Bhathena: I think in a mix of several languages. There are parts of my brain that get instantly activated when I come across a person who also speaks Gujarati or Hindi; I always want to have a conversation in these languages. I guess, in a way, it’s my subconscious trying to hold on to what I know of them and not lose touch.
While writing a story, there are times when my sentence structures get affected without me realizing it because I’m thinking in another language and transliterating the same, word for word, in English. (Writing is always better because I can go back and fix things!)
On the other hand, other language learners or heritage speakers describe languages as being mixed in their minds, meaning they feel they speak Spanglish, Portunhol, Chinglish, etc. Do you identify as one of these speakers? Are any of your characters speakers of these mixed languages?
Bhathena: I am definitely a mixed language speaker. I speak in Hinglish or maybe Gujhinglish with a couple of Arabic phrases thrown in. I would, one day, like to write a novel in Hinglish without translation.
Zarin, the female MC in my novel, Qala Academy, definitely speaks a mixture of two or three languages. It’s the effect of being a Third Culture Kid in many ways; neither language feels like it is entirely your own and you always end up speaking a hybrid tongue.
Porus, my male MC, on the other hand, speaks fluent Gujarati and has trouble conversing in English. So much that at one point he bluntly tells Zarin: “Your English is too high for me. Will you please speak in Gujarati like any normal Parsi girl?”
Jae-Jones: I do not identify as a mixed-language speaker or thinker; I tend to think in different “modes” when communicating in either English or Korean. I have been told everything, from the tone of my voice down to my body language, shifts when I switch between languages.
Alsaid: There’s certain words or phrases I have to borrow from other languages, reach for them in the middle of conversations, especially in Hebrew where my vocabulary is basically that of a six-year-old, but I mostly keep them separated.
In my upcoming book (untitled as of this moment, out in 2017), the MC is like me and mostly keeps his languages separated, but his brother dips into Spanglish.
Córdova: I don’t identify as a Spanglish speaker, but I know that I do speak Spanglish at home. Sometimes I can’t remember a word in Spanish, so I switch to the English word. And vice versa.
Chapman: Growing up, we did sub in lots of English words for Chinese. I’m assuming it’s because those were the words my mom happened to know and she chose to use what English she could. Our Chinglish and Chinese were one and the same.
Now that you know all about these authors’ upbringing and have seen a glimpse inside their brains, stay tuned for part two, in which they discuss language in writing and reading.
Adi Alsaid is the author of LET’S GET LOST and NEVER ALWAYS SOMETIMES. He was born and raised in Mexico City, where he now writes and coaches basketball. He’s always wanted a witty and clever bio, but clearly can’t come up with one. His next book, NORTH OF HAPPY, will be out in 2017.
Tanaz Bhathena was born in India and raised in Saudi Arabia and Canada. Her short stories have appeared in various journals including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. Her debut novel, QALA ACADEMY, will be published by FSG Books for Young Readers / Macmillan in the fall of 2017. She can be reached on the web: tanazbhathena.com or Twitter: @bhathenatanaz.
Elsie Chapman is a YA author. Her newest, ALONG THE INDIGO, will be coming from Abrams/Amulet in Fall of 2017. Chinese-Canadian and originally from Prince George, BC, Canada, she moved to Vancouver as a teenager to attend UBC, where she earned a BA in English Literature. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and two kids. Repped by the awesome Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Zoraida Córdova was born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of THE VICIOUS DEEP trilogy, the ON THE VERGE series, and LABYRINTH LOST. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro
S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the author of WINTERSONG (Thomas Dunne, September 2016). Before moving to grits country, she was a YA fiction editor in New York City. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina, and many other places on the internet, including Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and her blog.