The Meaning of Being Trilingual

Alan De Leon - Brazil


February 26, 2013

In the beginning of my elementary schooling, the only language I knew how to speak was Spanish. As a Mexican-American, it is my native tongue; English is my second language. I started reading books in English when I was in Kindergarten, even though I didn’t know what the words meant. So I guess that means that I was not actually reading anything–but was I doing then? Every night when I was six years old I picked up books from my sturdy stacks and started “reading,” at first not having any ideas develop in my mind as to what the words could have possibly meant. Was I just staring at the paragraphs? It did not feel like it. I had no sense of navigation when it came to a language I did not understand, but when I studied the books I still felt like I was heading somewhere. Those English words, although meaningless to me, were profoundly intriguing. They represented the unknown to me, a place where I was without direction, left at a junction with an infinite number of paths to choose from. No one had yet taught me what the words meant; no one had yet told me what path to take. So, I went ahead and walked my own path: I started defining the words myself, with my own meaning, imagining my own stories, creating my own esoteric language with the letters. I felt in complete control! I could bend my fantasies at will, mutilate them and transform them into anything in between a love story and a tale of horror. Schooling eventually spoiled the fun by telling me what the words in my books actually meant, but never did I abandon my fascination for the unknown.

I am 19 years old now. That same fascination has since taken me about 6,000 miles far from my home in the United States: I have now been living in Brazil for more than half a year. Back in September when I arrived here I felt like that six-year-old boy again, having experienced once more the mystery of Latin letters, whose configuration became foreign to me yet again. When I looked at the billboards and signs on the street spelled in Portuguese, I felt lost–except this time I was both mentally and physically lost. Without a map I was helpless. I was not very familiar with most of Brazil’s villages, towns, cities, landscapes, or the roads that connect them all. I mean, for the first time in my life, I am in Brazil. It is a country larger than mainland United States, and in which the majority of Brazilians only speak Portuguese, which did not help me much in finding my own way.

Now, however, I am fluent with the language. I read books in Portuguese and venture conversations beyond small talk regarding where I live in the United States, what kinds of music I like and what my little brother’s name is. Growing up people used to tell me that being “bilingual” was a great privilege, that it would one day open windows of opportunity for me, such as being more qualified for a job. That’s fantastic, I guess, but what does being trilingual mean to me? That’s huge. Never in my life did I imagine I could allow myself the luxury of sporting such a rare title – what does it mean to me? Well, allow me to ponder that out loud for a moment…

Being trilingual means that I can journey places like Brazil with my eyes closed, because now I can converse with the natives, using Portuguese words like a chisel to sculpt the world’s images in my mind, without the need for my eyes. English and Spanish words shine colors that most Brazilians cannot perceive, thus providing no light within the darkness that envelops every country that is alien to me. Therefore, Portuguese is also my guiding light in Brazil. Now I have a guiding light for almost every single country in the Americas.

Being trilingual means that I am making Brazil a part of my own being. I am going to return to the United States and live the rest of my life possessing her language, respecting it, spreading it as if it were my own. But it is my own now. I am living in Brazil as if I was born here; the innocence of my childhood has found a new home here, much like a newborn when he first opens his eyelids, curious to learn the why’s and how’s of everything that makes up his environment. Brazil is my school and I am its student, every single Brazilian my teacher, all helping me learn to speak like them, eat like them, dance like them, think like them, dress like them and breathe like them. Out of all these qualities, however, nothing connects our spirits more than being able to express our frustrations, our dreams, our forgiveness, our happiness, our fears, and our love in a language that we can all say belongs to us. Brazil and Portuguese: very much so pieces of my own soul.

Being trilingual means having a new outlook for my future. If my goals in life did not include seeking a vocational duty that would have me repeating an insipid task till the day I cannot perform any longer, then why would I shame myself with using languages only to make my resumes glow? With that being said, why, then, do people insist on making it seem as if speaking many languages is most useful for glorification? I only say this because I have hardly heard of any other explanations, but that is okay, because here I am offering a few of my own. I want to recognize the potential of being multi-tongued as immeasurable, too wild to be caged, incapable of being enclosed within any walls.

Learning new languages also frees me; it shows me how to draw my life with many more colors, giving potential to paint more vibrant portraits of my deepest thoughts and innermost desires. It shows me how to intimately appreciate foreign cultures and societies, carrying within my heart not just Brazil’s language, but its history and energy, pumping through my veins as if it were my very blood. It shows me that my identity is not limited to the United States and Mexico, because English and Spanish are themselves not limited to just two countries – if knowing more than one language qualifies me for anything, it is that it qualifies me as being a better global citizen.

When I was in Kindergarten I fell in love with the unknown. I am 19 years old now, and out of the many meanings of being trilingual, my favorite one is that my third language is just one out of many more languages to learn, meaning that there are many more unknowns to explore, becoming infinitely more free along the way, because even if I were to learn all the world’s languages I could simply create my own–just like I did at six years old.

Alan De Leon