The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Colonized Brains

Eight years ago I got so fed up with everything related to the country I hail from that I wanted a clear break. By then, I had already been living abroad for three years, but the several thousand kilometres proved not to be a sufficient distance. The language had to go: I stopped reading or writing in my first language, I switched all professional correspondence to English, and I forced myself to think in English. I even made a few pathetic moves, for instance, I systematically blocked everyone on Facebook who posted in the cursed language.

Let us not dwell too much on my lack of linguistic skills. Yes, I only managed to acquire some degree of proficiency in one foreign language. My Spanish is still a wreck, and the other half a dozen languages I spent time learning do not even merit a mention. And yes, I speak English with an outrageous accent. Seven years ago I was very concerned about it and I was ready to invest major cash in acquiring a more natural vocalization of English sounds, but then I never got around it. So that’s that. I have a decent English vocabulary and my grammar isn’t worse than any chav’s. Since most chavs get through life successfully, I should not worry too much either.

Recently, two thoughts occurred to me about the use of languages that had never bothered me before. Both are obvious, but it is worth a few minutes spelling them out. The first one is intellectual poverty. The question is: what do I lose by not using my mothertongue?

A few years ago I rediscovered handwriting. Throughout my graduate studies, I insisted on using a laptop to take notes, and I generally kept everything digital. When I started my nomadic semi-adventures, it was practical never to lug around notes and type whatever I had to write. Then, as I got sick of travelling and spent more and more time in one place, I figured that writing on paper was different from typing. Some thoughts come easier when you use a pen. The skill to write is wired differently in the brain than typing. Perhaps because I belong to an older generation that learned writing before typing; in fact, there was a gap of seven-eight years between the two. These days I write a lot on paper, especially about plans, ideas, and personal thoughts.

The first language is akin to handwriting, but its roots are even deeper. We started learning English in school when we were ten, and I never really used it until I first moved abroad at the advanced age of twenty-one. Since then, I processed an amount of information in English comparable to those first twenty-one years, yet it remains an alien body in my head. I would never try bending the grammar on purpose, pushing linguistic structures to the point where they still make sense, but barely. This is a form of intellectual joy. I can enjoy it while reading or hearing such utterances in English, but I am unable to create them on my own. I am too self-concious of being a fraud, a buccaneer venturing into a foreign sea looking for spoils.

On the other hand, after eight years of complete abandon, I find it excessively difficult to express myself in my mothertongue. When I visit my relations, in the first few days I translate from English thoughts before my brain finally accepts to switch languages and allow for a more natural flow of sentences. Even then, I involuntarily switch back to English if I don’t talk to anyone. That is the path of least resistance. There is also a cultural aspect to this: I know more about past and present British monarchs than about the tortured sovereigns that ruled that unhappy land that gave birth to me. I ended up in an unholy twilight zone where I cannot use the richness of any of the two languages I am familiar with, and this strips me of the chance of exploring certain intellectual and emotional depths.

The second observation that came to me is employability. English is taught as a second language across world except where it is the first or where it is taught as a third. Three out of the G8 countries are native English speaking countries. Part of their continued success is that they can suck up talent from all around the globe. The colonial system wasn’t sustainable: it is a lot easier to grab only the minds you need, and let the rest of the country rot.

It also happens that the Five Eyes brotherhood consists exclusively of English speaking countries. At least two of them are warmonger, fascist police states — arguably the worst ones in history. I noticed that acquaintances who moved to any one of the five soon became surveillance apologists. My inclination to make the move myself is extremely limited, but then my choices are equally limited. I could return to the cradle, accept a monthly pay equivalent to what a mediocre prostitute in the “West” makes in a day, and sink into the complete lack of perspective and the depression it triggers. I could move to one of the non-Five Eyes English speaking countries, but they tend not to be economic powerhouses. Belize and Trinidad pop into my mind. Okay, Singapore is an exception, but I am not a good enough scientist to qualify.

So here I am, stuck with English, unable to express myself in any other language, brain colonization half-done, and unable to make a living in the nicer countries of the world. I made some horrible life choices.