Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading In A Second Language

I'm bilingual, and sometimes it makes me look at words we use from a different angle. I didn't speak English as a child and I don't share the whole suitcase of connotations and memories which go with some words for native speakers. That is a loss which I can never make up, though I can learn what those connotations are. It's almost as clear but never the same.

But this kind of bilingualism may also apply across gender or race or ethnicity. Some of us speak a second language even when speaking our native tongue!

Here's an example for you: There's a band called The Gogol Bordello. What the name is intended to evoke might be the feeling of a loud party, the abandonment of oneself to the music and so on. It's also meant to shock, I think.

But for me, in my first language as a female human being, that word "bordello" means something quite different from its intended meaning there. Women have not had brothels to go to as a customer.

If a woman thinks of the words "bordello", "brothel", "cathouse" and so on, she cannot think of them from the point of view of someone going into one to have a wild party. She would have to think of the term from the point of view of either being a worker in the bordello or from the point of view of someone being excluded altogether.

Yet when I read I'm very good at getting the intended meaning, and that meaning is the idea of a bordello as a place where rules are broken, where people are enjoying themselves, where sex is not regulated. I also get the subtexts of bordello's being places in the hidden underworld. That is being bilingual.

This bilingualism doesn't go in the reverse direction. Try and you will see.

There are examples of reverses, naturally, such as anything having to do with child birth, and all of us have to read in a second language when discussing alien experiences. But whose experiences determine the overall connotations of a word are not the same across the field of terms. I think the term "sex" is being redefined in a way which makes it a second-language term for many.