Word Identities

Sometimes, I trip over words that are supposed to glide across my tongue.  


Sometimes, my words become like that old Regina Spektor song*, “tangled in my hair and tending to go nowhere.” Stuck like gum in the strands on my head.


But sometimes, my words have the crispness of refrigerated water. Tongue rolling in just the right position, each sound with a distinct flavor.


Words with the Spanish double rr are like merken, the Chilean chili pepper flavoring that I add to nearly every food I eat. Other words with regionally exaggerated vowels are like the soy milk and banana smoothies I drink in the morning, fluffy and smooth, inhabiting my mouth with sweetness and ease.



My adventure is expression.


The words I iterate every day are not ones my mouth was initially trained to speak. The extent of my parents’ Spanish? “Hola” from my mom and “live más,” from my dad (yes, the Taco Bell slogan).


My adventure is Spanish. Chilean Spanish, to be exact.


I have had the privilege of learning another language in a country famous for bastardizing words, assigning common expressionless problems to obscure combinations that otherwise would mean nothing. This being that language is nothing without context.


Every day I’m faced with transforming the limited number of words I know into phrases that communicate a wider array of emotions than those I am normally accustomed to. A French friend reminded me last weekend at a barbecue that everything is exaggerated here. Living in Chile requires following new patterns and rhythms, constantly working on an infinite number of puzzles in Spanish in your brain. These all create living-abroad emotions, more extreme than their home-country counterparts. And without the language to communicate these emotions, what do they become? Stuck?


I let grammar and emotions combine to create a strange nervous explosion of incorrectness and rawness and Chileanness, which is slowly invading my brain and mixing with my once fully English soul. Now I associate my emotions with their Spanish words, their Chilean expressions, so that when I talk in English with friends and family, I think, “Well why can’t I just use this Chilean word or phrase?” The ones I always use, yet in a language that isn’t mine. My Spanishified emotions. My Chilean emotions. Who am I, then, if I let my sister culture take up space inside of me, like a cat curling up to sleep in a corner of my brain?



This has been my adventure, the adventure of who am I without the English words that, for nearly twenty-five years, formed my thoughts, my sense of self, my habits, my core. Who am I becoming, my slightly Chilean yet also mostly American self? Anyone with a second language knows they are ninja warriors of words, that they shift selves depending on the words their breath pushes across the expanse of their mouths. That maybe it’s okay to let sister cultures, sister habits, sister selves, inhabit the brain and create new emotions, new selves. That, in the end, it’s okay to sit on a roller coaster of words and let them take you where they will.  


*Lyrics “My words don't travel far/They tangle in my hair/And tend to go nowhere” taken from Regina Spektor´s song “Consequence of Sounds”


Photos by Author

Sarah is a young twenty-something lover of yoga and cats. After graduating with a psych degree from The College of New Jersey, she spent four months working with the English Opens Doors Program in Chile. In the end, she stayed and found a job as an English professor in nearby La Serena, an incredibly humid beach town with a lot of historical charm.