“Tongues” explores the complexities of language

The collection of essays features unique perspectives on what it means to connect through dialect

Book cover of an abstract speech bubble in thin orange, purple, and blue ombre lines
Authors write on how language shapes our sense of belonging. Image courtesy of Book*hug Press

By: Michelle Young, Copy Editor

I’ve always had a complex relationship with language. As a child, I was ashamed of Spanish. I begged my mother to speak in English because that’s what the other parents spoke. When I was forced to use Spanish, I resented the language more. My Spanish was clunky and disgraceful — but as I got older, I held on to Spanish as one of my only connections to my family and heritage. These intertwined emotions and experiences are explored in Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language. 

Made up of various essays, Tongues weaves together personal narratives about what it means to connect through language. Each author has their own perspective on how words shape our experience with the world. Though there is an emphasis on diaspora, the book also touches on gendered, sign, and ableist language. 

Themes throughout the collection explore what it means to belong and how language can be tied to identity. The authors describe how language can be a safehouse, a “road map to freedom,” or an “act of self-love.” Writers who have lost their mother tongues assert their identities and reclaim their heritage, despite the absence of language. Some authors seek connection through language, while others refuse to be held to the standard of fluency. 

Shame was a recurring idea in the book — the shame of being misunderstood; of being disconnected; of being compressed and flattened by a language that is thrown onto you. It explored misunderstanding between families and strangers and disconnection from assimilation and culture. 

The introduction noted “power affects language learning, specifically the experience of learning English in Canada — a predominantly white, settler, colonial nation — and the shame and exclusion that often come with second-language learning.” These nuances are tied beautifully together to highlight the challenges of each individual, without grouping communities together.

As I read, I thought of my mother, who’s had to explain many misunderstandings in a language that isn’t her own. As Leonarda Carranza writes, “They don’t get to know her sharp tongue, the way she plays with language — makes up new words — the way her humour comes alive in Spanish.” I also thought of my grandmother, who understood more English than she let on. And I thought of a customer, who told me Latin Americans were like family and we needed to support each other. It was then I realized the strong connection of language.

Tongues juxtaposes differing views on language to demonstrate there is no right or wrong way to belong to a diaspora. It illustrates that people who are scattered from their home are valid regardless of their relationship to language. Various anecdotes about facing discrimination in its many forms were heartbreaking to read, but also an encouraging demonstration of resilience. 

Tongues also explores the deeply political act of italicizing: how “foreign” words stick out on a page and how it is embedded in the process of othering. It invites the reader to think about foreignness and the audience being written for. 

We all have different relationships with language: it can connect and disconnect us. Tongues does not provide a solution or conclusion, but rather a sense of shared experiences. It mourns loss and celebrates connection in all its forms.

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