Priceless Expression

“Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language.”

Yiyun Li

I came across this quote while reading an old issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was a personal history piece written by a Chinese writer who came to America in her early twenties, and at some stage she made a near-clean break with her mother tongue. She shifted her way of thinking and writing to English, and in doing effectively erased much of a past that was conducted in Chinese.

As a person who still operates in my native language—but on occasion does get stuck on French thats crop up first in my brain—I still found her words to be extremely insightful. She has a strong grasp for how humans operate, and as I spend a great deal of my social and professional time with people from non-English speaking cultures (at least at their foundation), I felt a great deal of empathy for what she was trying to communicate. And the quote I started with—the one about loneliness—its validity is not limited to those who navigate life straddling two (or more) languages.

So many of us spend our days searching for members of our own tribe: people who speak their language in a way that clicks in with our own, thus releasing ourselves to a place of previously unknown ease and familiarity. And perhaps this explains why I so often find myself traveling large distances to reunite with friends and loved ones who have fluency in my language (or perhaps I am fluent in theirs). Even less surprising is the observation that most, if not all of these people, have first-hand experience operating in worlds that demands some mastery of a foreign tongue.

But back again to the opening quote. In a modern world that does such a good job of connecting us all, it is still so easy to feel isolated and not understood (not I didn’t say misunderstood). To be lonely is to be without the immediate ability to turn to someone who understands your private language. And entangling yourself with another —even if the two of you don’t share a common mother tongue— this is just about the most precious thing in the world. To be understood at a level so profound that you don’t even need to formulate words (in any language) is a luxury that no dollar sign or material object can equal. Because ultimately, the one thing that we are all looking for in this life is to be understood.   

The Chinese-American author who now navigates life in a secondary language has it precisely right, even if others have reportedly recommended that she stop expressing herself in English. May we all get to enjoy our private language with at least a few trusted confidantes during the course of our days. And if we’re lucky, maybe we can manage to keep them for most of our lifetime too.