Are you born to your native language, or do you get to choose?
Job-hunting can be frustrating, that is a universal. In my own case of recently being back on the job market, I discovered a new twist to complicate the search for the perfect job. I am a language professional, who has worked as an editor, writer, and translator. I know several languages, but when asked to list my native language on a job application, I face a conundrum. It is not possible for me to be truthful and accurate at the same time.
Born and raised in Denmark by Danish parents, who spoke only Danish with their children, my native language, by standard definitions, is Danish. Yet, my entire adult life, which is by now rather long, thankfully, has been conducted primarily in English. English is by far my strongest and most fluent language. It is my internal language, the language I count in, the language I dream in, and the language I speak with my daughter. It was not, however, the language I spoke at home as a child, and I can’t therefore claim to be a native speaker.
As a result, I find myself in a bit of a linguistic no-man’s-land. In daily life, this is not a problem. Rather it is an asset most of the time. I can Skype my brother in Danish, read an article in French, talk with a friend in Greek, and then write an article about it all in English. The no-man’s-land only becomes apparent in odd little ways, usually related to cultural references normally acquired in childhood. Some I have picked up along the way, others, like the lyrics to “Come All Ye Faithful,” I have missed.
But if I try to register as a translator on an online portal, the machine will insist on making me translate English into Danish. The standard and correct wisdom being that you should translate into your native language. Except that for purposes of writing, editing and translating, my native language is, at this point, English. An employer wanting my best work should hire me as a native English speaker. This is hard to explain to an online form with drop-down menus.
When frustrated by all this, I remind myself of Karen Blixen, a Danish writer, who spent the first half of her adult life in the English-speaking, ex-pat environment of Nairobi, and who made her reputation writing in English. When Blixen started writing in earnest, she told her brother about it in a letter and said, among other things, “I have been writing in English because I thought it would be more profitable.” Apart from the fact that this was quite savvy and turned out to be entirely correct in her case, I find it interesting that Blixen’s choice of literary language was perfectly deliberate and conscious.
It reminds me of my own discovery of English, back in the 5th grade, when we started learning English as our first foreign language of several to come. Our teacher was a cheerful, young woman, whom we all loved. Almost immediately, the language felt natural to me, and when the teacher encouraged us to try thinking in English, I readily took her advice. At night, before going to sleep, I would painstakingly formulate thoughts in English, with a bedside dictionary as help.
When years later, I was married to a Brit and living in New York, my English was fluent, but had a distinctly British inflection. At the tender age of twenty-four, I was put in charge of a restaurant, which meant managing twenty-five mostly American employees, among other things. It became apparent to me that my British English was a barrier to effective communication in that situation, so I made a conscious and successful effort to switch to the American idiom. This sort of switch is actually easier when you are adopting a native language, rather than having been born into the language.
Nabokov is another example of a great, sublime even, writer, who adopted English as his literary language in adulthood. Nabokov and Blixen both achieved international fame, when they chose English as their linguistic medium. But regardless of their fame, their example shows, as does my own more humble version of it, that when you have facility in more than one language, even if that facility is acquired as an adult, what constitutes your native language can be a conscious choice rather than an accident of nurture. As more people cross linguistic borders in the course of their professional lives, this phenomenon is likely to become more common, and perhaps even the job portal drop-down menus will start taking it into account. Meanwhile, at least I am in good company.