Torn Between Two Worlds and Ableist Language Shaming

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

In a world where everyone says try harder (until you die), I’ve learned through bitter experience and stress related illness not to try so hard. Some applaud me. Others shame me. This morning, it was my daughter’s teacher.

But you must learn the language! How else do you expect to take care of your daughter?

When you move country, there seems to be one golden rule. Learn the language. It’s a sign of respect, it’s a sign that you want to integrate with the laws, the culture and the customs. It’s a sign of gratitude.

Thank you for letting me live here (and pay taxes).

I’m no stranger to this way of thinking, in fact as an Englishwoman it’s something that is ingrained in me as an anarchic imperialist notion–about my native tongue that is. Yet through living in seven different countries and years of trying to learn each and every language/culture, I’ve done an 180 switch. I believe it is a form of ableism to expect others to have a built-in capacity for language learning and then to shame them for not learning. Yes, I believe that goes for english too.

There are acts and consequences. Learning the language has consequences for me. Years of misery and anxiety. Years of feeling as if I am not me, which casts me back to my emotionally abusive childhood. Years of not being able to speak to others and having them think I am stupid (which has been preceded by years of trying to learn other languages and feeling exactly the same way). But at the same time, it means I am a bad person for ‘not making an effort’. I am often shunned and shamed by those who think learning languages is just a matter of laziness, weakness and moral ineptitude.

And this morning it meant that I was shamed for being a bad mother.

My daughter’s teacher has a point. Some things I am not capable of… and if the father of my children who is a native Swede were ever to leave, then I would have tremendous difficulty in doing them. Like figuring out what her teacher–who has equal difficulty in English as I do in Swedish–wants to communicate to me about my daughter’s educational psychology. My Swedish is not that good. Other foreigners according to Swedish law, are able to request an interpreter. I am also allowed to do that but a part of me, ashamed of how Britain has pummelled other countries into submission over centuries, feels that it is my duty to not be that person.

But I wanted to tell her… walk in my shoes for a while. Move country seven times and spend years, now wasted, learning languages you will–as an English writer–rarely use again. Experience inadequacy and confusion when you go out, try to grapple with vastly different public transport systems, inadvertently miss bill payments because the sheer volume of foreign administrative mail takes literally days to wade through. Be misunderstood for your communication and have people shout louder at you thereby triggering your childhood trauma. And then spend even more years trying to learn the language starting with ‘Lesson 1: how to buy an apple’ instead of the more useful topic ‘Lesson 367: dealing with online banking and tax declarations.’

I know what a fucking apple is and how to buy it, since apples and currency work the same in pretty much every language.

Still, I forced myself to learn the languages and study the cultures. For years I experienced the loss of identity required to do so… before I had the enormously time consuming job of bringing up my children. Nowadays that and writing–in english–takes all my time. So instead of learning the language in my spare time, I have chosen now, to spend my time with my children or doing the things that bring value, whilst I learn gradually and easily as a child does. Reading books at their level. Learning phrases like ‘you are a poo sausage’ or more age appropriate care taking phrases like ‘Have you had an accident? Put your clothes in the laundry darling.’  Because of my linguistic inability at an adult level, we keep an english household and my children are fluent in both languages. Because of my linguistic inability, my children sometimes correct me and they love it. They also have a mother who is not as anxious as she might be. I am a better and happier person because I am not forcing myself through the treadmill of the loss of identity.

Learning a new language to a high level is not easy for me. I did it once with French over ten years; films, music and culture, not to mention fifteen years of schooling. I tried it with German for fours years. Spanish for two. Italian for two. Even a Japanese business course and a vague attempt at Russian in order to communicate with my new step-mother. Now I’m pretty much done with it. My happiness is more important. And yet here in Sweden is probably where it’s most appropriate for me to learn the language because whether we move away or not my children will always be half Swedish. But I’m older now. More tired after two kids and post natal anxiety. To tell you the truth I prefer to be happy doing what I’m doing, over making myself unhappy over a period of years.

My resistance to new languages has been built up over decades over unhappy learning. Of being told no matter how I achieved that it and I wasn’t good enough. Half greek, half english, I’ve been torn between two worlds my entire life, constantly shamed for not being fluent in both cultures and it’s exhausting. But still I am one of the lucky ones. As the world opens itself to refugees, I can only imagine how stressed and anxious they feel… they have fought for their lives and I have not.

Yet I know this resistance is only self-chosen (albeit over years). I am the one who feels terrible for not living up to others’ normative expectations. My anxiety and my insecurity are my responsibility. So yet again I’m caught in the blame-victim cycle and only I can get myself out of it.

On days like today, I can’t even. I’m just too tired, too anxious and too ashamed that people think I’m a bad mother, because I don’t speak the language to the level they think I should.