Gustavo PÉrez Firmat


Entrenched as it is in all the European languages, the idea of a "mother" tongue simplifies a much more complicated situation. Mother tongues are forked or folded into father and sister tongues, spouse and lover tongues, friend and enemy tongues. Particularly among bilinguals, language kinship is not restricted to the maternal. George Santayana identified Spanish--his "mother" tongue--with his father, and English--the language in which he wrote all of his work--with his half-sister and her American father, whom he never met but after whom he was named.   His polyglot Spanish mother he regarded as tongueless. The Baltimore-born Cuban writer Calvert Casey, whose mother's tongue (Spanish) was different from his father's (English), wrote in both but assigned them to incompatible emotional registers. Many nonlinguistic factors, some nearly impossible to detect, shape a bilingual's engagement with languages, his or her diálogo de las lenguas.

In the course of their lives, bilinguals shape--and are shaped by--their own language family, which has nothing to do with the language families of the philologists. In the Freudian family romance, the child is caught between the male and female parent; in the linguistic family romance, the bilingual subject oscillates between languages that are not always distinguished so neatly. Although the other tongue may indeed be the father's, there will be times when both tongues will be regarded as motherly (or fatherly). In these instances, the competition will involve aspirants to the maternal (or paternal) slot, as if the child, rather than having to negotiate between parents of opposite sexes, had to choose between a parent and a step-parent, or decide which of his "mothers" is the legitimate one. Because we tend to think about bilingualism in terms of the dichotomy "mother-other," we sometimes overlook that the "other" also has a gender (there are she-tongues as well as he-tongues) and can achieve kinship status. Indeed, the test of genuine bilingualism is whether both languages form part of the same family. The true bilingual is not someone who possesses "native competence" in two languages, but someone who is equally attached to, or torn between, competing tongues.

Tongue ties have little to do with linguistic competence. Affective rather than cognitive in nature, tongue ties do not presuppose mastery of a language. Just as it is possible never to have met one's parents, it is possible to be ignorant of one's mother tongue.   The maternal denotes attachment, not skill; affinity, not fluency; familialness, not familiarity. Grounded in biographical and historical circumstances, this sense of kinship can precede acquisition of a language and outlive its loss. U.S. Latino writers habitually pledge allegiance to a mother tongue that, for the most part, they no longer possess. Swearing loyalty to Spanish in English, they do not bear false witness, for even when the words have become unintelligible, even when the attempts at Spanish are riddled with solecisms, the emotional bond remains unbroken. Lack of skill in a "mother" tongue may well affect how a speaker feels about himself, for few sources of self-reproach are more disabling than the linguistic: "If you want to hurt me," writes Gloria Anzaldúa, "talk badly about my language." But a speaker's linguistic ineptness will not alter the kinship status of the language. As we know, virtuosity can be a function of detachment, while someone secure in his linguistic affections may treat his mother tongue with a familiarity that slips into carelessness.   And there is a type of inarticulateness that betrays not too little but too much involvement. When I stammer, I'm more likely to do it in Spanish. A tied tongue speaks of tongue ties.