Language - we hide whole lives between our forked tongues
In the Africa special of the National Geographic I read an article about the city life in Nairobi, Kenia, about the life of Mash:
Mash was in his late 20s. His father had been a wealthy man. He was, to Mash, a man "living in English", who believed in education and "fair play". A man who invested a lot of time telling his children to look forward, to the West, to progress. Then he died, and at his funeral another wife and three children appeared, as if from nowhere. Mash's father had managed to hide a family for 20 years.
How could he manage to do that? Nairobi people have learned to have dual personalities. We move from one language to another, from one identity to another, navigating different worlds, some of which never meet.
Mash would go to work in the morning for a tour company, where he spoke good private school English. In the evening we would cross to Biasharra Street in Mlango Kubwa to drink and talk. We would speak in English about philosophy or literature or the formal job market. We would speak in Kiswahili about life in general, about the little things that made up our day. We sought a kind of brotherhood from our conversations in Kiswahili - speaking always in a mock-ironic tone, laughing a lot, being generous about each other's opionions, offering each other drinks and favors in ways we could not in English.
We hide whole lives in the gaps between these forked tongues. This is how Mash's father managed to hide his second family, his village family, for so long. He was somebody else, somewhere else, in another language. His story is not unusual."
Why is it impossible to have the cosey evening chats in English? It is not because their knowledge of English would not be suffiently, they speak perfect private school English at work, they could easily continue in an informal way at night. No, it's because that language doesn't match with the setting, with that part of reality.The effects are really far-going, the mocking-irony way of talking isn't possible in English, in English they don't accept opposing opinions so easily, and in English they wouldn't be so fast to offer each other a drink.
And the father of Mash could live a secret life next to his public life by speaking in different languages. If he lives in two separate worlds, in every world a different language, he can pretend to be two persons. When it really feels like that, he will never confuse these worlds by accident and e.g. talk about his second wife to his first wife.
My personal experience with language is the same, i.e that certain languages are for me related to specific settings.
For instance I have a friend from Senegal who has been living in the Netherlands for more than 10 years. He speaks Dutch well enough, we could speak Dutch with each other. But we prefer to continue talking in English (or sometimes French), in the same way as we started that at the beginning of the friendship 6 years ago.
We don't like the Dutch language setting, it doesn't fit. We like a Senegalese setting (created when speaking in French with some small words in Wolof), or the setting of world citizens, with English as the international communication language.