Biting my mother tongue

From “The Four Agreements” (seen at Macondo Coffee in Cali)

It must be the feeling of getting older (I’m turning 39 tomorrow) that gets me dwelling on existential ideas such as the effect of time passing on things that aren’t living. The thing I’ve been obsessing about over the past few days is words.

Since I came back to Colombia I’ve had an internal battle with, on one hand, the desire to connect with the past and thus embrace the expressions that take me there and, on the other, the strong resistance against using the language I used as a teenager — because it makes me feel as though the past two decades have not made a dent in my progress as a human being. (The same goes for music: I find myself loving the memories of certain songs I hear on the radio — but hating the music at the same time.)

There are practical implications of not having used my mother tongue consistently or on a professional level for most of my living years, of course. I struggle to write and often feel inadequate when trying to explain what I’ve done professionally in recent years. But there’s something deeper and more emotional underneath it all. It turns out, it’s not a rare experience and there’s extensive research on how language influences emotion.

In my case, some of these feelings are framed in the context of my partner learning Spanish and the various layers that brings. From answering ‘simple’ questions but being unable to explain ‘the why,’ to dissecting typical expressions with obscure meanings, language-learning conversations are anything but boring. And yet, I’m unable to ‘rediscover’ the language in the way I thought would happen. Words don’t roll off the tongue — something I was already worried about before — but also my level of comfort and joy when using the language is uncertain at best.

One of my biggest life-long challenges has been to be able to express myself, and that’s why I always look for opportunities to speak in public or write. It’s only in those highly controlled places where I am able to connect with language — where rehearsal is required so that the words begin to flow and the stress levels are high so that I’m able to stop thinking. But when I’m in the solitude of my day to day, I struggle and beat myself up over the fact that my use of language is so colourless.

While at a coffee shop in Cali this week, I came across the quote “Be impeccable with your word”, one of the famous “four agreements” by Miguel Ruiz. I was immediately reminded that this struggle with using the right word at the right time is a human battle, not just mine. Coincidentally, during this trip I also came across a tradition of the Muiscas, my direct ancestors, which I had almost forgotten about. It’s called ‘mambear’ and entails chewing on green powder made from coca leaves and the ashes of a particular tree while sitting in a circle with others. I was reminded that it’s one of the ways in which coca, this plant of medicinal powers (and no, it’s not cocaine!), is consumed. But what most interested me was that it’s used in the context of ‘sweetening the word’ so that important decisions and conversations can be had in the community.

It was a strong reminder of how important words are in our different cultures. As a child I wanted to speak like my father. He had such beautiful ways of describing the world and his storytelling abilities were unsurpassed by anyone I knew, or know to this day. I thought that eventually when I reached his age, I would have that ‘super power’. Sadly that wasn’t the case, but I’ve realised in the past few days that the power of the word is in owning our thoughts — even if we can’t express them gracefully at all times. It’s about welcoming thoughts that are helpful and bringing wellbeing into our day to day. Clearly in my case, obsessing about language is not one of them.

In fact, another big lesson during this trip is that speaking ‘well’ or ‘better’ isn’t always constructive and, in a country like Colombia, language has strong social class undertones. While traveling by bus, we started speaking to a woman who must have been in her 50s. The conversation was animated and covered all kinds of topics. Her language was no different from mine, I thought, until she made a remark about strongly resenting those who corrected her grammar. She said that sometimes she would use the wrong word just to spite someone. “I speak as I like and if you understood me then there is no need to correct me.” She had a point and it highlighted how our relationship with language is very personal but also tells the story of our social dynamics.

And, as if given the opportunity to test those dynamics, during the returning bus ride I was confronted with a situation that made me feel terribly uncomfortable and troubled. A nine-year old child was about to throw a piece of plastic out the window. I had probably 30 seconds to stop him but the ‘right’ words wouldn’t come out. I was worried about the child’s mother, in light of what the other woman had said earlier about making people feel inadequate or belittling them, especially in public, and then I simply didn’t have the words. The piece of plastic flew away and I was left with a knot in my throat. Why couldn’t I spell out a simple sentence with kindness and with a smile?

It brought to life some of the hang-ups I still carry here — the many layers my brain has to undo and travel through before I can utter a simple phrase. And so I have been reminded that my words are mine but that they are also influenced by the context in which I live, and I’m back in the place where I learned most of those words. There’s nothing wrong with surrendering. This whole experience is about making new out of the old and, given my obsession and challenge with them, perhaps I need to start playing with and reclaiming some of those old words as my own.



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Marcela Guerrero Casas

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.