forbidden tongues

Language is ubiquitous. It is the metaphorical glue which bonds us to one another, the ability to send thoughts and ideas across spaces. Through language we are able to have civilization, for it is through the production, proliferation and interpretation of information that we are able to learn from one another. 

When I was younger, I used to wish I could speak a different language. For years I tried to teach myself various tongues, all of which were chosen relatively arbitrarily, without realizing that I existed within a language reality that I was trained to never acknowledge.

A year ago I was fortunate enough to take a class called “Language and Identity in the African Diaspora.” The class was the first linguistics class that I’ve taken at Swarthmore. The course discussed the ways that language acquisition and socialization affect the performance and interpretation of the Black identity in Africa and the Americas. Interestingly enough, as I was taking “Language and Identity,” I was also taking a History class on the Gullah/Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. I did not expect the two courses to overlap when I originally picked them the semester before, and over the winter break I mostly forgot about the classes entirely. At the time, I was about to start my second semester of French, as well.

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Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?

I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.

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