I tried to shed my native tongue when I arrived in Australia from Macedonia, in the summer of 1998. At the time kids loved wrestling or the Spice Girls. I was an anxious 10-year-old, formerly a big fish in a small pond, suddenly turned into a mute figure of pity.
As a 10-year-old, I wanted to belong, to quickly assimilate and to shed the dreaded title of ‘the kid who can’t speak English’. Who wants to be the kid that sticks out like a sore thumb?
My mind became a sponge, it had to. I soaked it all in – the lazy drawl, the abundant abbreviations. My tongue slowly started to emphasise the unnatural sound of a ‘w’ or ‘th’. The spelling of my new language was still a mess, too many rules, too many patterns. There wasn’t a need for the elaborate swirls of the Cyrillic alphabet. The look and sound of the new words didn’t align. I clutched the Macedonian-English dictionary like a Bible, hoping I was getting better week after week.
After a year in Australia I started receiving As in English
After a year in Australia I started receiving As in English. I started high school and like a dark horse, I confidently surpassed my peers in academics. They did not like this, I reminded them of their own shortcomings. I made them look inadequate. Most of them didn’t know that I studied the same history, maths and science content in grade three, oceans away where the teachers were sadists.
The English exam in Year 12 didn’t scare me. It was a modified ESL exam, but I breezed through it, like some sort of an anomaly. My text response was about Vincent Freedman from Andrew Niccol’s dystopian film Gattaca. I wrote about a man who was deemed worthless by society and despite all the odds stacked against him, he made his dream a reality. I strived to do the same.
After high school, I studied Arts, majoring in English. Novels surrounded me; I fell in love with Victorian gothics. It seemed natural to become a teacher, teaching English to children who were born in Australia, children who were born with every advantage, children who don’t know any other language than English. It was almost poetic, but every now and then doubt creeps in and makes me question if I am worthy. Do I have the right to teach blonde, freckle-faced children their mother-tongue? Am I an imposter? The harsh gnashing consonants are still there, lilting in my speech, deeply Slavic remnants.
My husband is Italian and we speak English at home. I teach him the occasional Macedonian word. It’s usually food related: lebche, yabolko, chai, yayce, pivo (bread, apple, tea, egg, beer).
Writing has always been my most loyal companion and I write for the love of it. Over the years, which have been topsy-turvy with rejection and achievement. My long and unpronounceable last name has filled award short-lists alongside Huttons, Dixons, Browns, Smiths. Yet, sometimes people just want me to write sad migrant stories and stick to that. My otherness can be my commodity and my otherness can be my downfall.
I’ve only written in the tongue I adapted, the tongue I now dream and think in. This fills me with pride, albeit the customary guilt. I feel my rusty and dormant mother tongue inside me. I can still read the letters and artlessly write in them. I can string a sentence with effort and forethought. However, I am working on it and I am using Macedonian more consciously.
My first language pours out when I am stuck in traffic – the elaborate and untranslatable curses which would make anyone giggle at their literal meaning in English
My native tongue is fragmented, buried under an overuse of English. It comes out when I least expect it, when I can’t bottle up my emotions or in affectionate moments with my son. As I lull him to sleep, I call him my zlatno sonce, my golden sun.
My first language pours out when I am stuck in traffic – the elaborate and untranslatable curses which would make anyone giggle at their literal meaning in English, you rotting piece of rubbish, you sow. Or there is budala, the versatile jackpot of Macedonian insults, a blend of: idiot, stupid, moron.
I talk to my parents in a mishmash of English and Macedonian – the linguistic butchery of immigration. A sentence begins in one language and finishes in another.
Having my son, it feels like I’m getting it back for him. He also has an innate way to draw it out of me. I comfort and sing to him in Macedonian. I count to him in three languages and only recently I have started to translate his picture books in Macedonian and Italian. With him, I learn to dig up and appreciate the language which was once all I knew.
Maggie Jankuloska is a Macedonian-born and Melbourne-based mother, writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Feminartsy, Award Winning Australian Writing and more. In 2018 she was one of the recipients of the Maurice Saxby Creative Development Program. You can follow Maggie on Twitter @maggiejank.