My new self was in its infancy; now I was a work in progress. Within me, my native language and old self stood in confrontation with my third language and new self. On the one hand, I embarked upon an exciting journey of finding my new self through my third language; nothing ventured, nothing gained. On the other hand, my old self was clinging to me in my native tongue. I was hanging over the abyss between them.

Hannah Arendt in 1958 (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Hannah Arendt wrote about her mother tongue as a constant in her life, from her flight from Nazi Germany to France, from France to the USA until her return to Germany after the war

When you are in a totally new world like this, and have left your old one behind, you are physically in that place, your body is there, but your mind has not yet arrived. You still live and dwell in your own native language, you still think in your own language. This is because your memories and your past are rooted in your native language. When you want to communicate with your new world, you must do it mostly through its language.

Limited language skills mean limited power

But this can be a tricky process, as you will initially feel the need to formulate your thoughts in your mother tongue in your head, which you then have to utter as a translation. If you cannot express your feelings, your ideas or, indeed, yourself easily in the new language, problems inevitably present themselves. Thus, you feel alienated, and sense that your identity and personality are at stake. You feel weak and vulnerable because the weapon of language is not yet at your disposal to defend yourself. Limited language skills mean limited power.

After what can seem like forever in confrontation with the new language, it finally happens and you learn it. All the time you have invested in language classes and awkward conversations with native speakers finally pays off. Therefore, learning another language has an epistemological dimension.

You might be learning a second or a third language, but it never replaces the native one, which is natural and ontological. You can say something, and express yourself in your mother tongue, but you will never achieve that to the same extent in another language. For instance, you may have memorised some poems, you use sayings and proverbs, jokes, stories, fairy tales, and curses in your native language, but the likelihood is you will never be able to replicate exactly this in the second language.

Native language as a constant

Hannah Arendt, in an interview with German journalist Gunter Gaus in September 1964, spoke about her mother tongue as a continuous element throughout her life, having fled from National Socialist Germany to France, to the USA, and having returned to Germany after the war:

"What has stayed with me? The language. […] And I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance to both French, which I spoke well at the time, and English, the language I write in today. […] You see, there is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and all other languages. In my case, it is very easy to explain. In German, I know a great number of German poems by heart. […] This can, of course, never be achieved again."

Speaking a second language will never quite be the same as speaking your mother tongue. However, this does not mean it is not worth the effort to master it. After all, you might discover a new self in the process.

Nabaz Samad Ahmed

© Goethe-Institut/Perspectives 2018

Nabaz Samad Ahmed, was born in Koya, Kurdistan, in 1988. He has an MA in Ethics and Political Philosophy from the University of Manchester, England and an BA in Philosophy from Koya University, Iraq. Currently, Nabaz is an assistant lecturer at the University of Sulaimani in Kurdistan. He is also a writer, translator and a member of the editorial board of “Culture Magazine”, a Kurdish cultural quarterly.

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