This Obsession of Labeling

There was this Woody Allen movie I once saw – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – where at some point, Scarlett Johansson’s character gets The Question popped after she confesses to her friend that she´s living with her lover and his girlfriend and she´s pretty okay with it. So the friend asks her something like “so what, you´re lesbian now? Or bisexual?”. And the answer is memorable – and not just because I remember it now for the sake of my latest blog entry – : “you know what? Why should I have to put a label on it? I don´t know what I am. And I don´t really care for naming it. I just know I´m happy and for now it just works out for me just like that” or something along these lines.

No, I´m not trying to get into a heated discussion on that topic. The point I´m trying to make is that ever so often I feel it´s just a sad little world we live in (by the  by, some food for soul: “what if our whole existence is some forgotten C-graded school science project gathering dust on the upper shelf in some alien kid´s room in another galaxy?”. A science blogger was asking himself that and I keep thinking of it whenever I just want to move to the Moon, hopefully, while it´s still unpopulated.) if people keep trying to put names on stuff and label experiences and thus necessarily corset any human possibility within the confined space of limits. I hate that word and everything it implies. Put a limit to thinking, put a label on what people are or are not and you´ve got a pretty full stop for just about anything.

Most recently, I get to be disappointed verging on furious when so many Spaniards who want to learn foreign languages (mostly English) because they suddenly realized they need to go out in an unfairly English-favoring world start by labeling themselves – “how would you assess your English level?” ; “a B1+”, comes the mind-blowing answer. As a teacher, I am always going and waiting, with this general question, for something less self-demanding, like: “I am pretty good at reading and writing, I come up short with speaking and listening and I have issues with understanding”, so, of course, my follow-up questions are around these lines. Then they label me, because “no matter how bilingual you may be, you still can´t master the language as a native speaker, and I can figure out from your accent that you are not native” – whatever that means. Most surely, they say that and they realize “my accent” is different only after they find out directly from my most sincere and foolish self that I, well… am not native. I am also not blonde, I am pale rather than fair-skinned, my eyes are black, I am not tall and most importantly, I am not just yet in possession of an American or Commonwealth passport. But I guess that doesn’t help either.

Let me share my limits with you, as well as the labels I supposedly have to carry along. I am currently working as a foreign language teacher. Yeah, I teach more than one language, but that´s beside the point. Or maybe not, there you have my first label: I´m a bi-, tri, multi-lingual. Or let´s just say I´m a polyglot, right? I previously worked as a foreign press correspondent. Another limit pops out: I was at no point a specialist, I wrote good pieces on pretty much anything, mostly about current affairs in politics, economy, and culture. My first job in my home country was in a company where I was translating and interpreting. I had before worked on a freelance basis as a translator and corrector in several publishing houses. And I have been teaching French and English ever since I can remember when I first started out as a student in my late teens. Finally, the juicy stuff is this. I am a political scientist. Yes, that´s my best label. I have a BA in Politics and a MA in International Relations. I am not a teacher, not a translator, not an interpreter, not a journalist. Just none of it.

With me being a big girl and all, I can hear and accept all the opinions – being what they are, biased, partial and utterly subjective. I shouldn´t have been able to work as a translator, interpreter, journalist or a teacher since I did not study for any of this and I lack the basic theoretical training in it all – they say. Nevertheless, I am also a pretty lucky girl and I happened to meet people – in Spain, Germany, France and Romania – and most specifically employers who would not have given a rusty euro cent on any of my education, studies or theoretical training had I not been able to prove what I can and cannot do, rather than what I am and am not. I won´t change what I am. I actually can´t, but I wouldn´t even if I could because I kind of like myself just as I am.

What I sometimes also am is frustrated. I hate to admit it because it´s bad for body and soul, but it´s just what I feel every now and then. Frustration is what I feel when I hit this concrete wall obsession with labels. And concrete is rough, you know? I can´t break it. I can´t break the prejudice that I can´t teach foreign languages – that I happen to love doing at this point in my life – because I am native of only one of the languages I teach (Romanian) and I didn´t study Languages. It just doesn´t matter that I´ve been speaking English (with native speakers – oh, the irony!) ever since I learned how to read and write; or that I had a bilingual education in French and English (languages as a means, not a purpose) ever since high-school. And funnily enough, not even a whole cardboard box full of diplomas and foreign language certificates gets me out of the icky job of having to explain what I am and what I can do from time to time. For me to try to explain that my brain just works differently as a multilingual (scientifically proven, by the way) and this is actually how I got to fluently speak German and Spanish on the side is so many, many times, just a waste of time, because some of my dearest students just don’t believe me and stereotype my classes even before they start.

“I’m never going to be able to speak English without my Spanish accent”, I once heard from a disheartened student.

“What’s wrong with your Spanish accent?” I candidly asked.

“It’s not English” there came the answer.

“Well, sure enough. You are not English. You are Spanish”.

I hate to be blunt about this. But it’s my remedy to frustration. As long as we are going to keep confining ourselves to the tiny space of limits we willingly impose on ourselves, we are just aiming low. Any obsession, any recurrence – with labeling language levels, with labeling accents, with labeling capacities and capabilities, with labeling what people are and are not and thus labeling what they can and cannot do – is just bad.

On the other side, boosting learners’ confidence, encouraging them over their selves and doing maybe just a little more than teaching grammar, vocabulary and use of English when trying to build bridges between them and the cultures whose languages I speak and teach – still – is for me aiming high. And happily so.

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