What is it like to have a second soul?
When I began my freshman year of college, I couldn’t answer this question. I didn’t even know what a second soul was. I first heard about the concept from my Spanish professor, who often echoed a quotation attributed to Charlemagne: “To have a second language is to possess a second soul.” The first time he shared this phrase with me, I didn’t know what he meant. Did a person grow this second soul voluntarily, the way men grow a beard, or did it develop on its own, like an organ? How could I know if I had a second soul? I would learn the answers to these questions in the next few months.
My second soul had always existed, though in what might be called dormant form. Its roots lay small and hidden in my heart as a deep, abiding love for the Spanish language. I grew up around Hispanic families, and they taught me my first Spanish words when I was in elementary school. Though our short exchanges could have come out of a textbook, I loved speaking and hearing a different language, and I developed a taste for the graceful words that slipped easily off my tongue.
During my last two years of middle school, my brother and I took a Spanish class together. We practiced conversation, did our homework, and pitted our vocabularies against each other. As I learned more words and phrases, I took them to my Spanish-speaking friends to practice. These friends listened to me, encouraged me, and continued to teach me all through my high school years.
When I arrived at college as a freshman, I couldn’t wait to learn more about music (my major) and Spanish (my minor). But it was the language classes for my minor that changed my life. In two semesters of Intermediate Spanish, my professor took my fossilized vocabulary, retrofitted it, and expanded it. He taught me the advanced grammar that opened the doors to unlimited use of the language. He told me about the second soul.
It took me until the end of that year to understand the idea of a second soul. By then I could feel mine developing, a part of me growing into a recognizable presence as I learned to see and express the world in Spanish. Yet knowledge alone wouldn’t bring this part of my life to full development; it needed experience. That summer, I took my immersion trip to Spain. Those ten weeks in Basque Country provided my second soul with the last rays of sun and the last drops of water it needed to come into full bloom.
When I returned to campus, I told my professor I understood what Charlemagne had meant. That summer, I had lived in Spanish. I had mastered the language enough to comprehend others and express myself—to plumb the depths of human existence—with it. I had done things in the Spanish culture that I had never done (and will never do) in my English culture, such as explore a medieval town with near-strangers, cheer over a Barcelona match with friends, and participate in a 500-year-old victory celebration. I had built a life in Spanish that I will never have in English. That second life is what brought my second soul to maturity.
I returned from Spain with this new part of myself completed. I returned from a journey not of self-discovery but of self-expansion, of watching a new part of my life form word by word, conversation by conversation, experience by experience. It was the discovery of a new world—a world outside myself—that just needed the right words to illuminate it. Maria Konnikova begins her article “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” with a fitting explanation of this idea:
[T]he philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ The words that we have at our disposal affect what we see—and the more words there are, the better our perception. When we learn to speak a different language, we learn to see a bigger world.
This bigger world had begun to exist the moment I learned my first word in Spanish. Even speaking a phrase as simple as ¿Cómo está usted? (“How are you?”) meant I could step from one world, my English world, to another world, the Spanish world. Little by little I explored more of this Spanish world until, years later, I had built a house and made myself at home in it. I had not discovered a new part of myself; instead, I had grown a new part of myself—a second soul—to live in this second world.
This second soul also comes with a second pair of eyes: not just an understanding of another lifestyle, but another way of seeing life itself. In Ellie Richardson’s article “The Power of Language: Does the Language We Speak Determine the Way We Think?” scientist Lera Boditsky explains that “the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality.”
I had a hard time understanding this concept at first. When I grasped it, however, I knew it to be true. For example, in English we express an agent—a person who performs an action—for accidental events, as seen in the phrase “I dropped my pencil.” In Spanish, however, such events don’t have an agent. The literal construction of that phrase would be “The pencil fell from me.” It’s a small difference, but it carries major ramifications for how we view reality. As a result, in my journey, I didn’t just learn to see items or events from a different angle; I also learned to understand reality in a different way. These new conceptions of reality added another dimension to my life. They took me from my limited world of monolingualism into the bigger world of bilingualism.
If you had told me before I learned Spanish that a new language would take me to a new world and give me a second soul, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now, on the other side of my journey, I believe it. I’ve experienced for myself the miracle of learning a language, and it has changed my life. Now I can speak two languages. Now I can see the world from two perspectives. Now I have two souls.
Konnikova, Maria. “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” The New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2015, www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/bilingual-advantage-aging-brain.
Richardson, Ellie. “The Power of Language: Does the Language We Speak Determine the Way We Think?” The Undergraduate Exeter, 26 Nov. 2014, www.theundergraduate-exeter.com/2014/11/power-language-language-speak-determine-way-think/.