Can Learning a New Language Help You Find Your True Identity?

We’re back with Season 2 of America the Bilingual! We open with this episode that features two stories of how people reconstruct themselves in a new language and how, through that process, they can sometimes discover and express important new aspects of themselves that can be liberating.

Can learning a new language help you find your true identity?

It did for Judson MacDonald. He was struggling to come to terms with his true identity. He had a part-time job at a conservative restaurant where he didn’t really get along with the cashiers at the front—mainly white teenagers from high school, according to Judson. In the kitchen, though, he started interacting with single moms and 30-year-olds from southern Mexico and Honduras who spoke only Spanish. Sometimes, this gave room to challenging questions such as: Do you have a girlfriend?

It was a sensitive topic for Judson. “I had to learn how to navigate Spanish to be able to convey those emotions because a lot of the emotions that were inside of me I couldn’t even explain in English, much less Spanish,” Judson says. “That encouraged me to improve in my Spanish and also to improve on explaining who I was to other people.”

Fernando Hernandez and Judson MacDonald

Producer Fernando Hernández and Judson MacDonald at the America the Bilingual booth at the 2017 ACTFL Conference in Nashville

Spanish helped Judson, now a high school teacher of Spanish, to conceal his identity for a while…until finally, he took the plunge.

For Kate Krosschell, who graduated from Bowdoin College with a double major in French and film studies, learning Danish helped her uncover thoughts and feelings that she had hidden or shunned for something more conventional, like marrying a man and having kids.

“It was as if someone had projected that life for me and said, ‘This is something that you should try to strive for,’ but it wasn’t really resonating with my inner soul,” says Kate.

Kate Krosschell

Kate Krosschell, who found that Danish gave her a true voice

Eventually, she came out…in Danish. “I remember saying to some of my Danish friends it felt easier to sort of slip off my tongue in a different language than to say directly to friends and family back home, because it was almost like a play language. I can try on parts of my identity in this language and culture.”

Kate shared with us this picture of her canvas bag. “I love the quote on this bag, which translates to: ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.’”

Kinda fitting, right?

Karen Blixen's Bag

The writer Karen Blixen is known to many Americans by her pen name of Isak Dinesen.

Hear their stories

Hear Judson MacDonald and Kate Krosschell on Episode 22 (Season 2) of America the Bilingual. We are a storytelling podcast reporting on, and encouraging, the bilingual movement in America.

Listen on iTunes by clicking here: America the Bilingual by Steve Leveen on iTunes, or on SoundCloud here. Please subscribe and give us a review. It will help other people find the podcast. We’ll let you know about future episodes on Twitter as well.

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Sources and Credits:

The America the Bilingual podcast is part of the Lead with Languages campaign of ACTFL — The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
This episode was written by Fernando Hernández, who also does our sound design and mixing. Our associate producer is Beckie Rankin, our brand and editorial director is Mim Harrison, and our graphic arts are created by Carlos Plaza Design Studio. Editorial consultant is Maja Thomas.

The main theme music of this podcast is “Quasi motion” by Kevin MacLeod, under a Creative Commons Attribution License.