How Do Bilingual Relationships Communicate?
As a teacher, translator, and border-native, I’ve faced a lot of bilingual relationships. Not because each partner is bilingual, but because one speaks solely in Spanish and the other in English. Their life together comes and goes without speaking the same target language, their ideas are in their native tongue and still, they love each other and share beautiful moments just like any other relationship does.
I remember the first time I witnessed this, I was 14. My best friend’s sister was in a relationship with someone from San Diego, they met through mutual friends and even though they didn’t speak to each other the first time (or second, or third or eleventh time) they saw each other; they knew they liked each other. I asked her, Blanca, how she did this. She told me it was difficult and required a lot of time, but it was worth it because they loved each other. Apparently they would use sign gestures, pictures, sounds and even mimic the words they were trying to express, in order to truly convey their feelings. As an English and Spanish speaking Mexican living in Tijuana, Mexico I couldn’t even fathom the hassle and exhaustion of doing such a thing, but I was utterly intrigued by it. So, here’s how it goes according to what I have seen and learned.
Language is not just the way we speak or write. It’s a construct of our ideas and how we deliver them. Words go beyond the verbal and visual relationship, they’re much more complicated than this. In Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est pas un pipe” (this is not a pipe), he explains how words and images can be unconnected. In essence, our idea of the pipe is not the real representation of a pipe (the word, or a real pipe) because everyone constructs their own images of the words we learn. First, there’s the referent, the actual object to which it refers. Secondly, there’s the representation of the pipe, which can be any type of pipe or however you wish to portray it. Therefore, if we see a pipe in the painting, we’re forced to call it a pipe, because it’s a predisposition of how we can completely confuse the representation.
Now, we can move on a little bit to Saussure. Ferdinand de Saussure said that we have linguistic signs. Firstly, there’s the signifier which roughly translates to the “shape” of the word, the phonic component (how we listen to them), the graphemes (written words), and the phonemes (the speech sounds). Secondly, there’s the signified which is how the concept or object pops-up in our heads when we listen to it or read it. Of course, this is a brief and very fast explanation of all there is to say about this.
So, how’s all this going to help us understand the way bilingual couples communicate? Well, it’s really simple. The beloved one becomes the ultimate English/Spanish teacher you can find, because not only will he or she find the referent but also try to teach you the signifier, which will immediately paint the signified in our minds. If I want to tell my significant other to eat an orange, I’ll just look for the referent and most ‘real’ referent I can find. It’s a long cognitive and linguistic process that we truly have to admire from these couples, because sometimes we face ourselves explaining some abstract concepts, like our feelings or thoughts. There’s no way of showing how we could use a referent for love, understanding, lust, or even patience, but there’s a way of knowing and connecting these acts that in some cases (mostly all of them) go beyond from what our brute mouths could even articulate. And here they are, breaking the shackles of culture and the barriers of language so their partner can understand them. I like to compare this idea to some militant soldiers of ancient Greece in homosexual relationships defending each other to death, which is irrevocably beautiful. Here’s how we have our significant others crumbling down in exhaustion just for us to understand that a pipe is not a pipe, but a mere construction of our language and minds.
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