by Hong-My Basrai
When we finally left communist Vietnam, my father said: “Never look back.” His words had a finality to them. They stuck in my twenty-two-year-old mind, and so I began my never looking back process, starting with learning to communicate predominantly in English.
The acquisition and manipulation of languages were second nature to me. I had been doing it all my life—soaking up Vietnamese in the cradle, French in kindergarten, Chinese from classmates, English to survive, and Gujarati because I had married into a Gujarati Indian family.
Basic English had come to me easily enough. It was just a small step from uttering my first “thank you” to verbal fluency, then progressing fast from ESL writing class to English 1A composition. What was harder was learning to elevate my writing proficiency to a level suitable for a public audience. Since I had picked up English on the go, learning it by imitation, like a baby, with most words borrowed from my prior knowledge of French, I had to pay extra attention to spelling of similar words, particularly homophones like address and adresse, envelope and enveloppe, May and mai; false cognates, words that have similar spelling but different meanings, like infant and enfant, anniversary and anniversaire, song and son; and words of Latin and Greek roots like destroy and détruire, or abnormal and anormal, etc.
Such mix-ups are not possible between Vietnamese and the Western languages, as they are oceans apart. Here, the order of words in a sentence and the wild dance with tenses through time are what stump me most—I’m sure you will find many such occurrences throughout this post, malgré moi! I’ve always questioned the wisdom of conjugation. To convey the timing in which an action occurs, Vietnamese people need simply to add to their sentence time indicating words like “yesterday,” “this time last week,” or “tomorrow,” and in the absence of these time-specific words, words like “already” or “will” are used instead of having to switch tenses haphazardly through the timeline like a train through complicated switch points.
From the very beginning of my journey into this Babel world, following my dear, wise father’s counsel, I never translated but thought in the language I wrote in. No matter! I’ve discovered with dismay that my English writing reflects aspects of Vietnamese and French influence. Once, someone circled “I look at her round eyed” and suggested that perhaps I meant to say “wide eyed.” Indeed!
Later, I stumbled on a French expression, “faire les yeux ronds,” for “surprised,” and realized the “round-eyed” I used is not uniquely Vietnamese but also French. Perhaps Anglophone writers are the ones who need tweaking?
Treading too many language obstacles, polyglot writers surely risk major polyflops. The blurred lines between acquired languages can cost us clarity and tidiness in our writing. One wrong expression, a carelessly-spelled word, an undetected cliché, any of these, plus upside down syntaxes and jumbled tenses can come back to haunt our otherwise beautiful writing.
I don’t mean to say we are doomed in no man’s land. Polyglots have many advantages over English-only writers. We are strong with nuances, the usage of word subtleties. We keep in mind the untranslatable nature of languages. We look at clichés with curiosity instead of contempt, for these popular, often visual expressions reflect a language’s history and culture, bear the stamp of time, and can be refreshing for readers without borders. For those who are constantly acquiring new languages in order to survive, or in the other extreme, to expand intellectually, polyglot writers can spin clichés to make our own unique expressions.
We may have to paddle harder to find our island, take a longer breath between pieces before each submission, think harder and edit better. Since we can write in a global language, our writing tends to be inclusive and does not cater only to the mainstream audience. Using our collection of authentic words, niched-expressions, revolutionized clichés, and authentic portrayal of human feeling and thoughts, we can skillfully close the gap of cultural and linguistic barriers to reach a wider audience.
Hong-My Basrai is a Memoirist and author of Behind the Red Curtain, blogger, engineer, manager, mother of three and wife of one, etc. She is a bit of everything.