Before I learned English, I heard several dialects of the language. English felt like Sun Ra’s jazz – unfamiliar, unconstrained and mutable. It could never be heard and then simply understood. Like a Sun Ra song, the language demanded a special focus, dedication and an unflinching submission from its audience.
English had no connection to my mother tongue, Singhalese. As a language, Singhalese acted as a channel for expression and emotion. The language transformed the mundane details of sun-drenched bodies into evocative dramas. With it, life felt like the tip of a volcano ready to burst open at any point.
In her book In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri describes encountering a foreign language, Italian, for the first time:
“I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.” (15)
Unlike Lahiri, I did not love English at first sight. I understood that I had to learn the language, perhaps even master it, but I retaliated against this expectation for as long as possible. I hated feeling like I was settling for a path that had already been laid out for me. I liked Singhalese: familiar, comforting, easy, like raindrops that fell softly from palm trees. It had emotion, a richness to it, and I could be vulnerable at all times.
I hated English: cold, restrained and bland, like red meat from a supermarket fridge.
As children my age read billboards and magazines headlines in English, I refused to touch any book and preferred to lounge near my mother, basking in her friends’ gossip. I had no need to repeat every street sign our car passed; I could stick to repeating everyone’s marriage breakups and secret affairs by heart.
I resisted and rebelled until the age of seven. Finally, my parents forced me into an all-English school and I had no choice but to accept the omnipresence of English.
I struggled. I felt just like Lahiri did as she tried to master Italian:
“The language still seems like a locked gate. I’m on the threshold. I can see inside, but the gate won’t open.”
As school became more and more demanding, I had to use the language for complex purposes. I remember struggling to keep up with other children, who could read their textbooks and pen evocative essays and articulate complex opinions. I experienced a deep shame because I could not do the same in this language that I continued to absolutely detest.
They read texts and I appeared to read texts, but in reality I simply memorised the sounds, using the cadences as a string to plough through the dark road of a foreign language.
One day, one of my mother’s friends gave me one of her daughter’s English books during a gossip session. I liked the pictures in it and spent some time trying to read the captions. After several hours of staring at the letters and saying them out loud, I managed to piece together the first sentences and understand it. I started the laborious process of learning to read alone.
I had to really sit and learn the language – the grammar, the synonyms, the antonyms. I stumbled and the process hurt, but my absolute stubbornness kept me returning to it.
Things started to change. Without intention, my thought processes shifted completely to English. I dreamed and created in English. Without any consideration, my attachment to my mother tongue slipped. It became a secondary language, one that I used only in close circles and for the purpose of connection, familiarity and familial intimacy.
The IELTS exam aims to gauge a person’s English fluency in areas such as speaking, reading and listening for countries that primarily operate in English. As an adult, I found the experience of sitting the IELTS exam to be perplexing.
The exam tried to represent my relationship to English through a simple score. A mere number. A mind-numbing simplification.
The examination failed to capture everything I had already accomplished through the language: a school education, a degree, a career, my closest relationships…the axiom that governed my daily reality.
I had never sat the exam before but finally succumbed to satisfy some visa requirements. I understood that the score I received would have possible consequences for my life. No one in Australia, in Europe or in Asia questioned the relationship English and I shared. They just accepted it. This relationship appeared active and in constant flux, clearly fully functional.
I did not prepare for the test. A lot of my friends reassured me of its simplicity.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” they said. “I walked in and got an eight.”
I babbled through the speaking section. I felt like an imposter, like I was having an out-of-body experience. I heard myself speaking in English, a standalone language, rather than in my voice that naturally spoke English. For the first time in a long time, I heard my voice speak English as an outsider rather than as someone that had an intimate relationship with it. The test pushed me outside and asked me to prove my capacity in a language I had not only familiarised but had already made mine.
I remember thinking, “Do not stutter. Do not trip. Do not make a mistake. This might cost you a grade.” Ironically, I had these anxious thoughts in English and had to keep communicating in the same language.
I do not have a distinct voice in Singhalese. I am not sure about the emotion it conveys or the sounds that it holds. Would I be another person if I had a voice defined and rooted in my mother tongue?
In In Other Words, Lahiri describes a black jumper she had misplaced during a solitary outing:
“The next day, when she woke, she saw a black sweater on a chair in the corner of the room. It was again familiar…. when she put it on, she preferred it. She didn’t want to find the one she had lost, she didn’t miss it. Now, when she put it on, she too, was another.” (81)
The jumper Lahiri lost had been English and the jumper she found had been Italian.
Similarly, the language I had lost had been Singhalese but the language I found had been English. At this point, I realised I had fallen deeply into English and could not pull myself out of it. In fact, I had little to no need of pulling myself out of it – I preferred to stay enmeshed in the language. I had no intention of turning back and retracing my steps.
I absolutely hated the writing section. I had not sat a timed exam in years. The head of my course at university did not believe in exams, and thankfully so.
Writing is a process. It’s not as simple as sitting on a desk and putting pen to paper. Words are ideas that need to be thought about – re-evaluated, re-negotiated, sometimes completely negated – and then communicated.
It takes time and life has to pass through like a soothing river current carrying the occasional pink salmon out to sea. I hated sitting in a chair and penning a letter in half an hour.
Even as a journalist, my articles undergo several drafts before they are finally published. Each article represents my commentary, the thoughts of my sources and the suggestions of my editors.
The voices of multiple personalities are stamped and condensed together on one page.
I remember an English teacher I had at the age of thirteen.
She helped me break the rules of the language. She encouraged me to use ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the start of sentences to startle people out of their reading coma. She helped me translate the insights I had about people and their lives into colourful prose passages. She helped me structure the larger-than-life emotions I experienced into iambic pentameter.
Without realising it, I had found my voice – my literary voice – and it spoke English.
The section I hated the most had to be ‘Reading’. It felt like a maths or science test rather than a humanities test, made up of several multiple-choice questions – a surprising way to test reading skills. The exam never asked me to close-read a passage and dive into its hidden depths and scourge secret messages roped to its foundations, or read a passage and respond to it creatively.
The chosen passages felt bland, like they had been picked out of the back of dated cereal boxes or Ikea instruction guides. It felt like a section I had to prepare intensely for and rush through in the timed period. I did not catch even the hint of feelings, sensory experiences or personal transmutations.
Perhaps the greatest surprise turned out to be my reading score: 6 out of 9.
I read for leisure. I read at least six books every month. I bask in memoir, fiction, critical theory and poetry. Books like I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia incorporated all these genres, so I gobble them up like salted caramel cheesecake.
I don’t just love books – I’m a compulsive reader and the test failed to represent this through its so-called score.
At around ten, I started living through the boundaries etched by English. My life continues to be elucidated through the language and this shall continue to be my fate.
Though I did not fail the IELTS exam, it failed to represent me to a bureaucracy. It could not even touch on the journey I had taken to learn a foreign language and form a relationship to it.
Even at a young age, I could feel that learning English came at a price. It called for transaction: what are you ready to sacrifice to completely learn this language?
I thought that learning and mastering English meant that I could belong to it but, in retrospect, I have learned that I made a deal that cheated me. Though I embraced English and even traded parts of my identity to learn it, the language and the culture it framed has failed to do the same for me.
The tragedy of it all is that though I am touched by both Singhalese and English, I belong to neither. I am an alien and a fraud in both languages, constantly being asked to prove my proficiency and authenticity.
Devana Senanayake is a journalist and radio producer focusing on gender-based violence, race and immigration in the Asia-Pacific region. Devana has reported for The Washington Post, South China Morning Post, VICE, ABC and SBS.
In 2017, she won Writers Victoria Women of Colour Commission for her essay Misplaced in Pop about the misplacement of South Asian actors in Western media. In 2018, she produced a three-part audio documentary about the immigration experience through the female lens called The Modern Odyssey for All The Best, 3CR Community Radio and Multicultural Arts Victoria. In 2019, her essay Limbo is slated to be published in the anthology We Are Here: Writing Place.
She also participated in documentaries made by the BBC, Aljazeera and ABC.
Find her on: https://devanasenanayake.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter: @dsenanayake16
Photo used under Creative Commons by Thomas Hawk (via Flickr)