Ambient Language by Stephanie Sy-Quia

By Wasafiri Editor on February 10, 2023 in Essay

In this essay, Stephanie Sy-Quia reflects on the five languages in her family, learning and un-learning language, and the multilingual environment’s earliest lesson – all through anecdotes from childhood and her experiences growing up across countries and cultures – and explores classism, (de)colonisation, and the question of ‘going back’ through languages.

In my family, five languages are spoken: German, Spanish, French, English and Tagalog. I speak two of these: French and English. Spanish is the language shared between my dad, uncle and lola. Almost all the members of my family, apart from myself and my sister, speak German. My siblings and I grew up in France, but our family spoke English at home. Lola speaks Tagalog, but in the immediate family she has no one to speak it with. 

Language is one of the lines along which my family falls into private subsets. 

When we were growing up, German was my parents’ secret language — what they used to discuss us (and other matters) without being understood. When the time came for my brother to choose a modern language to study at school, he chose German, promising to report back on what it was our parents were saying to one another. What transpired was that he just joined their confraternity, sniggering with them over things my sister and I couldn’t decipher. Spanish is what my father speaks when he slips back into old dynamics with his mother and brother. He seems to speak it from a different place; it shifts his whole physicality, and he is suddenly all shoulders, possessed of a slippery bravado which is absent in his English. 

I feel no need to learn more of either Spanish or German. I’m happy to leave my family members their privacy, but also feel sated with what I have of their languages. 

I do not feel the same way about Tagalog, and I cannot rationalise why. 

I am early on in my acquaintance with it, it is the language I have the least access to. It is technically my father’s mother tongue — he spoke it until he was five, when he lived in Manila, but then moved to Barcelona, where he spoke Spanish. He started learning English and German at roughly the same time, as he had an Austrian stepfather. Now English is his primary language, and his Spanish is harder to retrieve. His Tagalog is all gone, and he does not speak it with his mother. 

The main way I apprehend lola’s Tagalog is in her accent, my favourite accent, which is at times more pronounced than others. One Christmas her niece, M, who grew up in Manila, was with us, and they spoke Tagalog together. M said that the thing she missed the most about home was speaking Tagalog. They took obvious pleasure in speaking it to one another. But their relationship to it is marked by generational difference: to lola, it was the language spoken to her family’s maids growing up. With her family she spoke Spanish and English, and English was the language of instruction in schools (thanks to the American hold over the Philippines after the Second World War). By the time M was attending school in the nineties, schools had shifted to Tagalog, resulting in M’s Tagalog being ‘malalim’ — deep, deeper than lola’s. 

Through aspects of classism, (de)colonisation, and personal uprooting, Tagalog is a language I never acquired in a familial context; it is the most occluded of the languages in my family. I would like to start to learn it someday soon, but given my grandmother’s own context with it, the generational skipping past my father, I feel dogged by feelings of fraudulence. What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to find my way back to? Is it even a question, given the generational caesura, of ‘back’? 

Spanish and German have been spoken around me my whole life, but I do not speak them. Instead, I am attuned to their patterns and rhythms, to certain key phrases, to how the body language shifts from one to another, to certain tics of speech; to the smudgier stuff, the ways one language can nudge up against another: what I like to think of as ambient language. It’s a term indebted to the work of Sarah Howe, who describes a sound, or something adjacent to sound, in her mother’s Cantonese-accented English:

She tells these and other stories with a pause-pocked, melodic, 

strangely dated hesitancy. What I mean by this, whenever

I hear it, that halting intonation takes me back to the years

when we first moved here. In those days, in her early forties, 

in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with 

a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so

natural to Cantonese

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English

like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score. As she

chatted with the mothers of new friends, tentatively made

and dropped-off to play, it seemed to me that every minute

or so – I could feel it building – she would stick mid-note:

[…] A 

tic the local children mocked me for – that nnnnnnnnnnng

in the playground –

as I tried not to be ashamed. ‘Loop of Jade’ (Loop of Jade 15)

It is very similar with my lola when she speaks to us, those who do not share Tagalog with her: a just-detectable upward-inflected twang at the end of her words, a certain linking lilt. In a later interview in Review 31 I conducted with Sarah Howe, we spoke about this. She elaborated: ‘A childhood language spoken around you ambiently, but which you can’t process as language, is something I find very interesting as a poet. Though I still can’t really understand it, the sound system of Cantonese is deeply familiar to me, comforting even’ (np). I experience this same affection for the languages spoken around me my whole life, but rarely to me. 

My family’s many languages create alternate currents of understanding and unknowability; they signal areas of my relatives’ experiences which I cannot access, or have no rights to. As a writer interested in the chronicling of family history, this has been an important and humbling lesson in handling the experiences of others. In my toddlerhood, when my mother was doing her PhD in German literature, she tried to teach me. I remember ‘alle aussteigen’ (all dismount) when we rode the bus together to campus, and ‘lecker’ (yummy). There must have been others, but those are the only ones I can recall — not so much as memories but as free-floating rhythms drifting through my mind, which I still don’t really experience as words, but as patterns of emphasis. 

I could bluff my way through about three short phrases in Spanish, giving someone a much better impression of my ability than I actually possess, and my mother tells me my German accent is very good, though I now know very little beyond schün and makst du cafe? — the phrases my parents used most in front of us. But I do not feel my limited lingualism as a lack. Instead, I prefer to think it has opened my ears, taught me to be attuned to a wider range of patterns, systems, and modes of linguistic expression. It has given me a greater appreciation for fragmented understanding, for catching one word in three and for extrapolating meaning where I can — a good foundation for a reader and writer of poetry. 

Of course, when I speak French is probably when I feel the shift from one language to another most keenly. At first, when I am back in France, it’s like heaving my mind from one set of parallel train tracks to another: it takes effort and feels awkward and lumbering. Alternatively, the first ten days or so that I’m back, it’s like rummaging in a bottom drawer in a panic, trying to find my French, smooth it out and make sure it’s presentable. In a tangible way, I feel my enunciation shift from the roof of my mouth to the front of my lower jaw: this is largely where the sounds of French are made. I remember coaching my boyfriend, when he began to learn French, that the ‘r’ comes from the top of the throat, that to consciously shift the sound from there to here, and store it there, would help him move between the two languages. I don’t so much think of going to France as going to French, moving over, shifting modes. But it is in fact in the interstitial bits of speech that I notice the change the most: the way I move my face when speaking, the way it shifts the whole way I move. I become shruggier, there is a film of flirtation which appears and a frankness, my hand gestures are more voluble; it is, in my experience, a more embodied language than English. When I manage to speak it at speed, hitting its sequence of tight sounds in turn, it gives me a feeling of lithe pleasure; I feel like a gymnast on the bar. 

There are words and concepts in French which delight me: ‘gourmand’, which often gets translated as ‘greedy’ but which really is a perfect encapsulation of a Catholic country and its attitude to sensuality (as is, furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon self-denial evident in that bungled translation). In A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar refers to the ‘sex on the surface of everything’ in Italy, and I find it fruitfully applied to the French language and its vocabulary, which takes such obvious, infectious pleasure in itself (60). I swear with much more vehemence. The way I would express pain or surprise or irritation is different, those almost onomatopoeic exclamations of ‘hey’ or ‘ouch’ become, depending on whether I am in Paris or the South, ‘eh’ or ‘O’ and ‘aïe’. 

These semi-conscious shifts do not quite amount to adopting the accent of each area per se, but are small adaptations to a local, less documented, lexicon. When I am settled once more in my French and speaking it, I am thinking in French. But this doesn’t mean I feel French, or at least, I have a hard time answering that question in those terms. I learned certain key things in French, meaning in French terms: how to talk to strangers, certain elements of femininity, which mark me out, now that I have lived so long in Britain, as being not quite British. I left France to be here, and in the process my French began to fall away, unused. Now, when I am in French, I have now hit the sweet spot of having an English accent sufficiently detectable that if I make an embarrassing mistake (often the result of translating something directly, saying the English word in a French accent, as when I meant to say that I tried to avoid food with too many preservatives and instead said too many condoms), it’s obvious why. It’s reassuring to not blend in completely, I think I would feel a bit guilty if I did, as if I was somehow tricking people. 

When I go ‘back’ to France, the country where I spent most of my childhood, it floods me with feelings of nostalgia, but I don’t feel I’m staking a claim. The best is when I can talk to my family, who will understand when I reach for a French phrase, or snatch at what I know to be an emphatic piece of German: it’s like patchwork, it’s like finding the perfect join for two different pipes, it’s like Picasso’s theory on colour — place them side by side and see how they sing together. 

As a poet, I have found this means I have become attuned to differing prosodies, certain faculties of my understanding relinquished, passive, and humbled. It has been an invaluable lesson in negative capability, in widening the concept of understanding and of what successful communication might be. With my family, it means we flip in and out of various languages, sometimes reaching for words or idioms which best express the things we mean, and triangulating between the languages other parties may not speak. It means you become an armchair etymologist, reaching for bogus links between words of tangentially related languages to help you feel your way through them. 

Any linguist would scoff at some of the things I have come up with to help me (for instance: ‘farol’, a traditional Filipino Christmas star ornament, often lit from within and hung in a window, related to ‘phare, French for lighthouse, two objects on a similar principle), but it means that language can become a space of play, of borrowing, of porosity as you grab for loan words. It frees me to find the interlingual puns and coincidences, to see language as fully modular. This is the multilingual environment’s earliest lesson, and it gives me joyous wriggle room.


Works cited:

Howe, Sarah. Loop of Jade. Random House, 2015.

Matar, Hisham. A Month in Siena. Random House, 2019.

Sy-Quia, Stephanie. ‘Anarchic Undersongs: Twin Interviews with Sarah Howe and Layli Long SoldierReview31, 2019.

Stephanie Sy-Quia is a writer and printmaker based in London. Her debut Amnion, won the 2021 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her writing has featured in The White Review, The Guardian, The Boston Review, and others.

Feature Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash