Where Language and Identity Intersect

Post by Elie Abraham (they/them)
Composer, Sound Designer, Voice Actor,
Escape Designer, Comedian, Queer Activist

My experience with language has been quite peculiar. Imagine: I grew up as a first-generation child two to immigrant parents from different countries. They spoke to me in their native tongues, Finnish and Hebrew, but to each other in their common language, English. After a daycare teacher threatened my mother 20+ years ago with “Your child will never learn English” when picking up my younger sister, she decided to quit speaking Finnish to us. My father, a much more stubborn man, did not only refuse to stop speaking to us in his native language, Hebrew, but sent us to a private school where we would continue learning it. During my childhood, my Finnish relatives spoke English quite well, and still do (I once looked up an English word my cousin used because I didn’t know what it meant), but my Israeli-Iraqi relatives, mostly my aunts and uncles, not so much. If anything, this difference in communication strengthened the effects of my mother’s decision to speak less Finnish to us and my father’s decision to keep speaking Hebrew to us.

I grew up speaking English with an Israeli accent, which over the years began to go away. In the bubble of my parents’ international community and the private school I attended, I hadn’t come to realize how intolerant parts of America were waiting to be toward me. In private school, I was sheltered from this as I was not the only pupil with an accent but immersed in a similar atmosphere which changed drastically years later when I transferred to the public-school system. As I was coming full into my adolescence, this experience was extremely other-ing. Even before entering high school, I found that many people thought that I was making Finland up and that “Finnish” couldn’t possibly be a language. People were familiar with Israel at the very least because in our area they were familiar with Judaism and, as they got older, with the Middle Eastern conflicts. By the time I went to university, in Indiana, a state not known for its diversity, my accent was gone, but my skin tone and dark features, taken from my father but mixed in enough with my mother was still prominent. This mix made it such that people didn’t really know how to attack me other than to threaten me because of my apparent “Mexican” heritage. As soon as I would begin to describe my background, people would begin to swear they could tell my background was different and start pointing out all the things about my English that gave me away.

As someone who grew up being abroad frequently, usually to see family, being treated like this not only felt alienating, but made me challenge, question, and reconsider who I really am and what my options were. So, I left America. I moved to Helsinki, where I was welcomed into a queer commune and began to answer questions surrounding my identity, and I consequently came out as a non-binary pansexual person. I never realized what my identity could be and can only imagine what my life would have been like had I the words for my lived experience. I dissected my experience through the lenses of the three languages I was raised speaking: English, a gendered language; Hebrew, an extremely gendered language where even the word “you” is gender-specific, and Finnish, a language with no gender pronouns. As a non-binary person, my pronouns are part of my identity (though it may not be this way for many), and while there is no such thing as a “preferred pronoun” in Finnish, I had to navigate this in English. In Finnish, we rarely address someone by their gender, so every day actions are generally much less invasive than during my periodic visits to the United States. Conversely, visiting my father in Tel Aviv was the exact opposite experience and it regularly felt like I was under fire as a non-binary person. I felt that I had to forfeit with my language and, thus, my identity, as the language coerced me to play a part.

Though it felt like I was able to settle into my skin as a relatively recently discovered queer person, I was, again, not prepared for the intolerance—my gentle word for racism—that I would discover in Finland, the first country that felt like home to me. Many of the microaggressions I experienced reflected themselves somehow in language, such as people coming up to me and starting a conversation by asking if I speak Finnish, which, given my background, I picked up again very quickly. In Finland, like in the United States, when I tell people about my background, they could swear they could tell and point out all the things about my Finnish that gave me away despite my native pronunciation. If there is anything that has been painstakingly driven into me about the role of language, it is that you will never be one of “us” if you don’t speak the language. Looking the part can help hold or defend one’s position against racism and other forms of intolerance, but language is the key to convincing others that they should accept you, that you are intelligent, and that they should value what you say—without that ability, sadly, they will not.