The Language Machine

“This is Janica and she speaks five languages" It’s normally how I am introduced. I don’t like it or dislike it, sometimes it feels as if I have a permanent neon sign above my head flashing; ”5 Languages spoken here”. It does not matter if I welcome that introduction it’s just part of me now.

My family is highly musical and everyone speaks in multiple tongues, it was not until later that I understood that we all had quite good ears for absorbing new sounds and with that comes curiosity instead of fear of failure.

I had always imagined myself as an historian that was the childhood plan. I still think that is what would have happened had I gone to University at an age when all we have are dreams and ideals. Fate would have it that I did not go until the age of thirty four and by then I had added the word “employable “ to the equation. I chose French and German to add to my native Portuguese and acquired English and Spanish, little did I know that I was getting myself a “Deluxe language combo” that would keep in jobs for life (so far).

And that could have been the final chapter in this story, I studied hard , I reached for the stars like in the song, I found multiple jobs and I kept my children, warm fed and educated,” The End”.

Yet it has been so much more than just getting steady employment. When you open your mind to other ways of expression you also change how you connect with your fellow humans , by “ talking like them” from inside their world, their castle their heritage ,the borders get smaller until you can’t see them anymore. Learning languages has opened my mind and let me mingle in the native lives of others because we understand each other with any loss in translation.

Speaking of translations, no matter how good they are, there is nothing like hearing it directly from the artist’s mouth with no intermediaries. As an adult I have gone back and read many favourites in their original form and I can almost hear the words inside my head as their ideas were born.

When I write my head feels like a friendly wholesaler that supplies the tower of Babel. There are stalls and bags over spilling with words in every colour and every sound. Some are stern, some are practical, others are covered in glitter, some smell like bread and roses and that is when I realise that the “Language machine “ title that I dismiss with a bored smile and a shrug is what has made me who I am. Someone who can connect deeply with people in equal terms because knowing their language allows me to step directly into their lives.

I often get asked what language I think in and what language I dream in. The answer is in all of them, it depends which one I am using the most at any particular time. I never know if I am going to shower in German, cook in French, cry in Spanish or get bored in English. There is one exception, when I wake up my first words are always in my native Portuguese, even after forty one years in exile, funny that…

Janica Ribeiro.