Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:
She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately, impassable.
Some of this rings true for me, especially in the early days of learning other languages that I eventually became conversational in: Irish, French, German, all thoroughly rusty now. There is the difficulty of being funny in it (and the satisfaction at any success); the sense of being stripped down to essentials; the tantalising inconstancy of personality.
And of course there is the privilege of having learned English as a first language, and the unhappy awareness of its cost.