Saturday, December 21, 2013

On Language

Many of you may not be aware that I grew up bilingual. I was born in the United States by Greek Cypriot parents. Mom spoke to us in Greek. Dad spoke fluent English but mom was the one home with us most of the day. We moved to Cyprus when I was an infant, back to the US when I was 5 and back to Cyprus when I was 7. You get the picture!

I don't remember when I learned English. My mom says that the first time she became aware I spoke English was when she heard two little girls speaking outside her window and when she looked, there I was with my friend Ria (I wonder where she is now)chatting away in English.

We often take our language skills for granted. Only when we see the struggle of people who don't speak the local language do we understand how important language is. As a child in my mother's Cyprus village of Bellapais, I remember how fascinated some of the older girls were that I was American. They would ask me to say something in English and I was at a loss. Sing something, they would say, sing something in English!

I was fifteen when the Turks invaded Cyprus and occupied our homes in Kyrenia. I returned to the US, enrolled in High School and thought that other Greek kids, who arrived in the US high school the same time as I, also spoke English. Walking with a Greek schoolmate in the halls of WC Bryant High school one day between classes, I was accosted by an African American girl. She shoved me and began yelling at me. I told her off and moved on. My friend was speechless. First of all, he wanted to know if I was worried that she'd be waiting for me outside after school. Ooops! I was so inexperienced in that kind of behavior that I had never considered something like. Second, he said: "you speak English?"  "Yeah, don't you?" I replied. "No, he said, "you don't know how hard it is for us newcomers to understand what's going on in school."

That was an eye opener for me who took my bilingual abilities for granted. Yet, even though I had no accent and I spoke English, my vocabulary was not that of a fifteen-year-old American kid. I also realized my cultural language was not that of an American kid. Many times I pretended I understood what the other kids were talking about when they referred to, what I later realized were American cultural icons, like Sesame Street, Winnie the Pooh, and Dr. Seuss.  Even though my accent doesn't give me away, I still sometimes feel like an outsider in a country filled with outsiders. I'm sometimes betrayed by mispronouncing a word I've seen only written but never spoken, by using an expression people don't relate to. It took years for me to feel confident to ask when people referred to a show, movie, book or event I had no knowledge of.

The self consciousness of youth has given way to the confidence of adulthood. I now appreciate the richness in straddling two worlds, but I have also experienced the challenges. The Global World has made it easier for people to speak with one another. I celebrate the cultures of the world and rejoice in the sounds of different languages, the brushstrokes of the art, the diversity of music, landscapes and most of all, you know what I'm about to say: The Food!!

As a writer, language for me is always up front and personal. As I experiment with the ins and outs of words and phrases in crafting my prose, I'm so appreciative of my bilingual background because it opens to me another dimension. Reaching into that Greek background I can often find images that are uniquely my own, Greek-Cypriot, American.

I salute all my viewers and the cultures they come from!

Maria