What is your first language?

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 11 September

The terms 'native tongue' or 'native language' have never sat comfortably with me. They are simply a static perception of languages as if they are biological functions. They are not. We are socialized to learn them.

When we are born, all that we have is our biological capacity to control sounds we can produce and place into a defined structure presented to us by our families, communities and education.

Depending on where we are born, we are confronted with expressions that we are trained to fit in. Our alignment with what is presented to us is both freedom and enslavement. Learning the language frees us to express ourselves, to be independent and to handle social transactions. Yet at the same time, it is enslavement as languages are also social products with limited vocabulary and sounds. Language limits us to certain vocal tones and certain perceptions and feelings.

This, becomes a problem when one learns another language. At its most visible level, we struggle to learn new sounds and use them properly. After all of these years, I still struggle with the 'th' sound in English, often pronouncing it as 't'. Similarly, I still can't hear the difference between 'w' and 'v' and often pronounce 'woman' as 'voman' and 'vision' as 'wision'. So I can't laugh too much when my Korean, Nepali and Bangladeshi friends pronounce my name 'Ciya' as the 'z' sound remains a problem for them.

Learning another language, however, is more than learning new sounds. It is learning an entirely new world of emotions, experiences and conceptualizations. It took me years to switch to 'ouch' rather than 'ah!' when hurt, or joke British style. When we learn a new language, we do more than learn words; we adjust to a completely new social code. So the Turkish 'Afiyet Olsun' does not work that neatly when translated into English, or 'Elinize Saglik' when complementing food. A Turk who learns English has to learn other behavior and language to adjust to table manners of another culture.

This thrilling opening of new horizons is challenging, as the bilingual person has to be a chameleon to dwell on both horizons simultaneously. This is easier said than done, as the person increasingly mixes vocabulary and syntax and expressions. I increasingly use Turkish expressions in English, and English ones in Turkish, which is always met with confused looks.

Recently, during a first visit to a friend's house in London, I exclaimed "So this is where the lion sleeps then." My 'witty' joke made no sense. I assumed that the English gentleman knew the Turkish expression "Aslan yattigi yerden belli olur"; a lion is known from where he sleeps. Similarly, I vividly remember when my then Cambodian housemate advised me not to pursue a romance with a colleague with the wise words: "As they say in Cambodia, 'Don't eat chicken in the Pagoda.'”

My grammar and sentence structures also get confused. I end up writing sentences in Turkish words on English skeletons. I have embarrassingly signed emails with the friendly wish "serin kal!" (stay cool!), which is utterly bizarre in Turkish. This gets more difficult as we learn other languages and live in contexts dominated by them.

After years of living on three different continents and being exposed to various languages, I find myself a bit confused when people ask me what my 'native tongue' is. Once, I stuck my tongue out and said "This one!" Yet, I cannot deny that Turkish has a special affect on me. I realize this when I listen to sad songs. Turkish ones touch me more deeply than any other language, perhaps because they are more depressing. Or perhaps at a young age I learned a particular way of suffering for love, a Turkish way, thus I am not moved that much by Scandinavian break-up songs.

I think particularly in one aspect the language of our initial upbringing always remains different than acquired languages: swearing. I find myself saying the rudest words in other languages with no shame or guilt. Whereas I blush using even the softest swear words in Turkish. This is due to my upbringing, which has caused me to internalize certain psychological responses to certain words. We automatically know that using swear words is improper in every language and country, thus we abide by the social norms, however, the language of our childhood evokes much deeper feelings of social reactions in us, thanks to our parents.

So, then, the question to ask to someone who lives in a country other than their own and who is potent in multiple languages, is not what their native language is, but which one they learned first.