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My Second Mother Tongue

Being a bilingual writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

What makes you bilingual? Is it seeing dreams and counting in the second language? Or, maybe, swearing in it?

Manifestations of ‘bilingualism’ (which sounds like an illness but is in effect a real bonanza for authors) differ from person to person.

To me, one of the pleasures of being bilingual is the ability to enjoy my favourite books more than once. I love re-reading Dickens, Conan Doyle, Jerome K. Jerome and Orwell in Russian; and Chekhov, Paustovsky, Bunin, Kataev and Bulgakov in English. If the translation is adequate, it helps me to uncover new subtleties in the original and think of how I would convey this or that bit in my first, or my second, language. I find such re-reading hugely relaxing.

I disagree with the widespread opinion of bilingualism as a kind of split-personality disorder — a schizophrenia of sorts, from which one can only recover inside an interpreter’s cabin. On the contrary, I believe that the ability to switch from one language to another, i.e., from one mindset to another, almost at a press of an imaginary button, helps to define one’s unique personality, making it even more special and distinct.

What does change is the way of expressing the same feelings, observations and thoughts. Choosing between languages is like selecting an alternative route on a Satnav device: the journey may be more time-consuming (e.g., an average Russian sentence is about fifty percent longer than the English one), the less familiar roads may not always be as smooth and straight, but the result – the final destination – will be the same.

As it was put by Vesna Main, a modern Croatian author writing in English: ‘I write. Writing is my country.’

Mind you, ‘writing’ as such — and not the language form it may take!

If you have something worthwhile to say — you will do so in any of the languages you speak or write. And rather than assigning a ‘new personality’ and clashing with the multilingual speakers’ (and writers’) mother tongue, each learned and mastered foreign language improves general linguistic skills. My recent experience as an RLF Fellow shows very clearly that, on average, the English-language writing skills of multilingual students, whose mother tongue is not English, are often superior to those of native and mostly monolingual English speakers.

It is hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been coerced into learning English at the tender age of seven, when my family lived in the dusty Ukrainian (then still Soviet), yet predominantly Russian speaking, city of Kharkiv.

The name of the private teacher, hired for our group of four little boys by my persistent parents, was Grigoriy Alexandrovich Polonsky. He was a tall, sturdy old man, with a loud voice and droopy Cossack-style moustache. In his youth, he studied at a pre-revolutionary grammar school, from which he graduated in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik coup d’etat, having mastered three living and two dead (Latin and Ancient Greek) tongues.

Grigoriy Alexandrovich resided in the distant and obscure city suburb called Kholodnaya Gora, ‘Mount Cold’ (heaven knows why). I remember his lanky snow-covered frame (it must have snowed constantly in ‘Mount Cold’), pacing energetically – almost falling – into our small communal flat.

In his battered briefcase our teacher carried – among other things – some faded postcards with coloured views of London. They must have originated from a ‘Cities of the Capitalist Inferno’ (or such like) postcard set, shoddily printed by our local ‘Red Proletarian’ publishing house. Those postcards were given out to us – one at a time – as prizes for diligence in our studies of the English language. As moral stimuli, so to speak.

For three ‘fives’ (the highest academic mark in the USSR) in a row we would be entitled to a bleak Piccadilly Circus postcard, for five — to a Buckingham Palace; for ten — to something more politically significant, like, say, the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, featuring Marx’s cartoon-like bust, with disproportionately huge head.

We were proud of those postcards — the trophies from our exhausting battles with English irregular verbs. To please our parents, we even glued them into scrapbooks.

I remember a badly drawn ‘British worker’, hastily printed over my Piccadilly Circus picture – probably on the orders of a vigilant postcard censor – to add a proper political balance to the otherwise rather decadent ‘capitalist’ view, with no tractors or red banners in sight. With a Soviet-style flat cap on his head, the ‘worker’ stood next to the Eros statue holding a poster that ran simply: ‘1st of Mey’ (the spelling mistake is not mine, for even at the age of seven I already knew how to write the names of the months correctly).

That ‘Mey’ poster added a feline touch to the picture. At least, in our still largely Russian-speaking little boys’ eyes (‘Мяу’ in Russian equals the English ‘meow’). Even now, crossing Piccadilly Circus, I tend to look down involuntarily so as not to stumble over one of the cats that, we had imagined, were swarming all over the square.

To earn enough ‘fives’ for the ‘Piccadilly’, let alone ‘Karl Marl’, as we irreverently referred to the founder of Marxism, was not easy. And not just due to having to recite from memory – and in English! – ‘The Solemn Oath of the Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union’ at the start of each lesson. No, the main difficulty lay in our Pestalozzi’s rather…erm…unorthodox teaching methods. These days, they would most likely be branded a ‘forceful immersion into a foreign-language environment’, or similar.

The truth was that due to the total absence of that very ‘foreign-language environment’ in our industrial Soviet city, closed to all foreigners, except for a few ever-tipsy Bulgarians, the teacher had to create it for us. That was why – as a way of introducing the verb ‘to pinch’, for example – he would squeeze our rosy cheeks between his stiff pre-1917 fingers and wouldn’t let go until the victim wailed — in English: ‘Stop pinching!’

By modern standards, he could have been labelled a sadist, or even a paedophile, yet in reality, he was neither. On the contrary, he was an excellent teacher, and, thanks to his learn-as-you-play approach, the alien-sounding foreign words were imprinted forever in our submissive brains.

Yes, at times, on our cheeks, too…

For lack of flesh-and-blood interlocutors, we were encouraged to practise our spoken English by talking to wardrobes and fridges. I had an immediate rapport with the wardrobe, a solid taciturn character, but our ancient ZIL refrigerator would often put me off by the guttural ear-grating noises in response to my timid: ‘How are you today?’

Once, Grigoriy Alexandrovich left behind his glasses in our flat. A couple of days later, his wife called to cancel our next lesson and all the following ones, because our playful teacher had died suddenly of a heart attack.

His glasses were still resting on our lounge-room table, conspicuous by their sudden (and scary) good-for-nothing-ness.

At least he could now practise his two ‘dead’ languages I thought, to console myself.

The teacher passed away, but our trophies – the postcards – remained. I looked at them for hours and, notwithstanding the awful quality of print, could not help admiring London’s unique colour pattern: red buses and red pillar boxes against the background of white Portland-stone houses.

When, many years later, I came to London for the first time, my immediate impression was how much it resembled the fuzzy postcards of my childhood. Even the ridiculous ‘worker’ was still stuck near Eros, only his poster ran not ‘1st of Mey’, but ‘The End of the World is Nigh’, which, as I already knew, was a lie, because my real world was only just beginning.

It was during that visit, my first trip outside the USSR, that my features and book reviews first appeared in the Guardian and in Punch. By then, I was already an established investigative journalist and writer in Moscow, with hundreds of articles and two books to my name. All written in Russian of course.

My English was fluent, if somewhat antediluvian, even ‘Dickensian’ (I used words like ‘swell’ and ‘topping’ in lieu of ‘great’ or ‘excellent’) but doing my first piece for a national British newspaper proved psychologically difficult. I agonised over the feature that described my impressions of Britain, writing and re-writing it endlessly in longhand.

I had never seen a personal computer, and the features desk of the Guardian, to where I finally delivered my ‘essay’, looked like the set of a science fiction movie.

Sweating with embarrassment, I dictated my piece to a sympathetic female editor, who typed it on her screen. It was published the following morning, and – to my considerable surprise – not a single word was changed.

I realised then, with sudden clarity, that I had found my second spiritual home.

And my second mother tongue too.

Vitali Vitaliev was an investigative journalist in the Soviet Union until his 1990 defection to the West. He is the author of sixteen books of fiction and nonfiction, translated into many languages, including German, Japanese, Italian and, rather ironically, Russian.

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