There is a version of me that is perfecting herself constantly: an English major, a voracious reader, with an exponentially growing vocabulary. I find joy in the fact that 19 year old me is more articulate than 18 year old me, and that this is a steady reliable pattern throughout life. This pattern does not exist in my mother tongue. Bangla does not adhere to the rules of exponential growth. There exists another version of me that is stuck at the age of 13, operating on a conversational level, frozen in a specific time and age. I hit the child-of-immigrants-language-absorbency-ceiling; I can make lovely dinner party small talk, but attempting to convey a nuanced opinion feels suffocating.
It feels disconcerting to bring these two versions together — to come home from a long day of analysing literature at uni to find myself armed with what feels like only a handful of elementary words. Two disparate selves, each with a different capacity for communication. My ‘double selves’ are not equivalent to each other: there is an asymmetry between them that influences how I operate in each language.
When speaking to my grandparents, I am acutely aware of the asymmetry in my fluency. Unlike conversations with my parents or other Bengalis my age, I cannot resort to English loan words or the language itself at all in conversation. I rely entirely on the limited arsenal I possess in my mother tongue, which is frustrating. It means topics of conversation are semi-limited to baseline feelings and daily routines instead of what I’m studying or what I’m thinking. “How was your day?” is a question that yields itself many answers in English. I can respond with a detailed recap of my coursework, a proper evaluation of why and how the cafe food I purchased wasn’t worth it, or a thorough complaint about my teammates on a group project. In Bangla, the recap isn’t as detailed, the cafe food was simply overpriced, and my teammates just suck. When my grandparents and I converse in English, the script is flipped. Now I have the luxury of eloquence, but they have the burden of articulation. Every conversation, no matter the language, is a Sisyphean attempt at perfect communication from both sides.
I often wonder how my grandparents feel, on the flip side of things. This double self exists for them whenever they visit Australia. For them to be able to communicate so effortlessly in Bangla but struggle with English. Alongside the struggle of navigating the world, lack of fluency in English often carries the stigma of unintelligence. This stigma, whilst being obviously untrue, is also just a logical fallacy. Struggling to speak in English indicates that it’s your second language, which also indicates you are entirely fluent in another language — already superseding the language capabilities of monolingual bigots. The cashier who rolls his eyes at my grandparents’ English could not even begin to imagine learning another language, let alone conversing in it.
This asymmetry isn’t always a curse, in some ways it’s a blessing. Often, I will have an incredibly complex, or pressing, or abstract desire that I will attempt to articulate in its entirety in English. My attempts to continuously perfectly encapsulate my feelings lead to intellectualising them — obsessively describing them, viewing them as detached from myself. Every simple emotion is dissected until it no longer remains ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ but turns into an overblown analysis — Why was I sad? Am I really sad, or just tired? If I’m really sad, how much of that can I control? This is helpful sometimes, but chronic introspection is a disease. There is an overabundance of clarity in my life, like a light that’s become blinding; my mother tongue cuts through this.
In classes for my English major, we talk about expression through words: articulation, punctuation, metaphors, analogies, and allegories. But sometimes, all you need is a single solitary word. To feel sad, or happy, or upset, or silly, without dwelling on where it originates, or how to mitigate it. In Bangla, I do not have the capacity for multisyllabic words, for therapy-speak nor hiding behind a veil of adjectives. Everything is spoken about plainly and clearly. I am not melancholy or despondent or regretful — I am upset. There is no rumination or condemnation, only acknowledgement. This allows me to view myself with a unique grace and simplicity that I wouldn’t have otherwise, to be content with expressing myself in the purest of terms, to make peace with the cacophony of complexity in my head by denying it any meaning.
Bangla and English, despite stagnation in the former and mastery in the latter, complement each other. The beauty of bilingualism is that both tongues grow side-by-side at different speeds, much like mother and child.