By the time I reached early adulthood, English had become my dominant language and made a sprawling home in my brain, forcing Farsi into a tiny corner, so much so it worried me at times. To lose that connection, or have it weaken, felt devastating. But as it turns out, a language doesn’t just slip out of your mind. In fact, in a 2014 study, researchers found that our mother tongue creates neural patterns on our infant brains that stay with us even if we don’t use the language.
Several years ago, after I fell asleep during the day — an occurrence as rare as a solar eclipse — and woke up confused, I asked my husband what time it was. “Saat chande?” I said in Farsi, a language of which he only understands a few words. He was baffled. Flustered, I repeated, “Saat chande?” In that confused moment between sleep and wakefulness, I resorted to the language that makes me feel safe, the one that has literally etched patterns in my brain.
My parents are both from an area in western Iran. People from that region of Lorestan Province speak a dialect. Some words and phrases are different from the equivalent in Farsi, at times funnier, sharper, tangier. I enjoy these words and associate them with laughter and the smell of tea, with summers at my grandmother’s house.
Because I left Iran before I was 10, I forget that not all Iranians know those words. At times, I use them with Iranian friends here in New York. I’ve said the word “gamelas” to signify a lazy or incompetent person — but I can’t translate it. It’s more than just lazy; it’s a feeling, really, weighed by cultural context. I start laughing because it’s a funny word. But my friends look at me with inquisitive eyes, waiting for a translation of what to me is our mother tongue. But it’s not. It’s my mother tongue, concentric circles of English, Farsi and a Borujerdi dialect of Luri (in which I’m not even close to fluent) that center in to some unique amalgamation of all those things, the language of my family, population five. Now four. A language that will go extinct.
That’s the thing with languages. Though we can give each a name, no two people really speak the same one. But in a quest to feel understood, we hold on to what we presume is a common one like a life raft in a sea of expressions, often orphaning old words and sayings to make room for new ones. And as the old float farther out, they become as unfamiliar and foreign to us as Tehran is to me now. They are our “ghorbooni,” the victims of the sacrifice, what we give up in order to be recognized, to expand. As if I had to give up Farsi to gain all this English.
But though the words might disappear, or occupy a smaller parcel of our minds, they continue to lurk in our unconscious brain, and the feelings, well, “gamelas,” will always make me laugh, even if I don’t quite remember why.
Sara Goudarzi (@saragoud) is a writer and poet.
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