We All Speak a Language That Will Go Extinct

“We can’t play tennis because you don’t have a net.”


I was standing on a quiet, suburban street in Bristol, Conn., when Eric, the boy next door, said that to me. Two rackets in hand, I felt my face ablaze. Then anger spread through my slight 10-year-old frame and my mouth erupted.


“I don’t have net?” I yelled. “I don’t have net?” I repeated for effect. “You don’t have net. Your father doesn’t have net. Your mom doesn’t have net,” I continued, bombarding him with what I thought were insults. I wanted to hit him where it hurt — his family — a common tactic among my people, Iranians. I just had to make my playmate understand that I had plenty of net.


Eric was dumbfounded. He confessed that indeed, he and his family had neither a tennis court nor a net, but he seemed unable to make sense of my reaction to this shortcoming.


For reasons I still don’t understand, as a new arrival to the United States, armed with a limited palette of English words, I had presumed that “net” meant “manners.” Eric didn’t want to play with me because I lacked good manners. It was only after I stormed back into the house that my brother, who had been breathing American air for close to a decade, explained where I had gone wrong.


Language, which we use to send and receive information, ideas and emotions, is at best inadequate to begin with. Even when we speak the same tongue, understanding and being understood can be a struggle. Add to that the challenges of communicating in a foreign language, and confusion and hilarity ensues — a phenomenon that isn’t lost on sitcom writers.


There wasn’t a lot of exciting programming on Kenyan television when my parents and I arrived in Nairobi. I was several months away from becoming a teenager, landing on my third continent in three years. If I’m not mistaken, there were only two channels that mostly operated in the evenings with very few shows I was interested in watching. “Mind Your Language” was one of those. A 1970s British sitcom, the show was set in a classroom of adults where a young Englishman taught a cast of students from countries including China, India, France, Spain, Italy and Greece.

当我和父母抵达内罗毕时,肯尼亚的电视上有意思的节目不多。作为少年初长成的我,那是三年内踏上的第三块大陆。如果我没记错的话,只有两个晚上播出的频道,我想看的节目很少,《请讲普通话》(Mind Your Language)就是其中之一。这是上世纪70年代的一部英国情景喜剧,故事发生在一个成人学习班,一个年轻的英国人教一群来自中国、印度、法国、西班牙、意大利和希腊等国的学生。

In one of the first scenes of the first episode, a prospective student says “squeeze me,” instead of “excuse me,” to the woman in charge of the school. Looking at a class syllabus, he says to her, “I’m hopping to be unrolled like it says on your silly bus.”

在第一集有一幕,一个即将入学的学生对女校长说“打扰”(excuse me),结果说成了“捏我”(squeeze me)。他看着课纲,对她说,“我要跳起来就像你的蠢大巴车一样展开。”(他本意是说,我希望能像课纲上说的这样修这门课。——译注)

I learned in my Kenyan school that French fries were chips and eraser was rubber. (This last one prompted a drawn-out silence when I returned to the United States and asked for one aloud during a high school class.) Because despite my speaking the same language in both my Nairobi and New Jersey high schools, I found that language is inextricably bound to culture.

在肯尼亚的学校里,我得知法式炸薯条是chips,橡皮擦是rubber。(回到美国后,一次在高中课堂上,我大声找人借rubber [保险套——译注],结果引来长时间的沉默。)尽管我在内罗毕和新泽西的高中说的是同一种语言,但我发现语言与文化有着密不可分的联系。

I best understood this the first time I told an American boyfriend I was so hot I was going to die. He responded with genuine feeling, “No, you won’t.” It dawned on me then that my first language, the one whose lullabies cradled my earliest dreams, was inherently dramatic. In recent years, I broke down a phrase we often use in Farsi as a substitute for goodbye, “ghorboonat beram,” and only then realized that it literally means “I will sacrifice myself for you.”

第一次对美国男友说我热得快死了的时候,我才真正明白了这件事。他真诚地回答我:“不,你不会死。”那时我开始意识到,我的母语,也就是用摇篮曲哺育了我最初的梦境的那种语言,天生就具有戏剧性。前几年,我拆解了波斯语中用来代替再见的一个短语“ghorboonat beram”,然后才意识到它的字面意思是“我愿为你牺牲自己”。

By the time I reached early adulthood, English had become my dominant language and made a sprawling home in my brain, forcing Farsi into a tiny corner, so much so it worried me at times. To lose that connection, or have it weaken, felt devastating. But as it turns out, a language doesn’t just slip out of your mind. In fact, in a 2014 study, researchers found that our mother tongue creates neural patterns on our infant brains that stay with us even if we don’t use the language.


Several years ago, after I fell asleep during the day — an occurrence as rare as a solar eclipse — and woke up confused, I asked my husband what time it was. “Saat chande?” I said in Farsi, a language of which he only understands a few words. He was baffled. Flustered, I repeated, “Saat chande?” In that confused moment between sleep and wakefulness, I resorted to the language that makes me feel safe, the one that has literally etched patterns in my brain.

几年前,我在白天睡着了——这种事就像日食一样罕见——醒来后,我迷迷糊糊地问丈夫现在几点了。“Saat chande?”我用波斯语问,这种语言他只懂几个词。他一脸茫然。我又慌乱地重复了一遍:“Saat chande?”在半睡半醒的困惑时刻,我求助于那种让我感到安全的语言,那种在我的大脑中刻下印记的语言。

My parents are both from an area in western Iran. People from that region of Lorestan Province speak a dialect. Some words and phrases are different from the equivalent in Farsi, at times funnier, sharper, tangier. I enjoy these words and associate them with laughter and the smell of tea, with summers at my grandmother’s house.


Because I left Iran before I was 10, I forget that not all Iranians know those words. At times, I use them with Iranian friends here in New York. I’ve said the word “gamelas” to signify a lazy or incompetent person — but I can’t translate it. It’s more than just lazy; it’s a feeling, really, weighed by cultural context. I start laughing, because it’s a funny word. But my friends look at me with inquisitive eyes, waiting for a translation of what to me is our mother tongue. But it’s not. It’s my mother tongue, concentric circles of English, Farsi and a Borujerdi dialect of Luri (in which I’m not even close to fluent) that center in to some unique amalgamation of all those things, the language of my family, population five. Now four. A language that will go extinct.


That’s the thing with languages. Though we can give each a name, no two people really speak the same one. But in a quest to feel understood, we hold on to what we presume is a common one like a life raft in a sea of expressions, often orphaning old words and sayings to make room for new ones. And as the old float farther out, they become as unfamiliar and foreign to us as Tehran is to me now. They are our “ghorbooni,” the victims of the sacrifice, what we give up in order to be recognized, to expand. As if I had to give up Farsi to gain all this English.


But though the words might disappear, or occupy a smaller parcel of our minds, they continue to lurk in our unconscious brain, and the feelings, well, “gamelas,” will always make me laugh, even if I don’t quite remember why.


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