A Third Tongue Enters the Arena

by Adriana Rewald

Two Glots sit on a rock and swap farts. One makes a sound the other can’t quite match and they laugh. What one starts the other fails to finish out loud, though it seems the perfect cluster of expression. Words that can’t be formed splash away. Words that can are regurgitated and consumed. Thus, the Glots share their semiotic resources. Thus, they live their semiotic lives.

One is getting bigger than the other.

Current is diverted more fully onto its side. It is getting the lion’s share of phrases burped out by the other, which misses more and more meanings tossed its way. Passersby nod approvingly at this now-noticeable size difference. They respond and relate to the bigger one and its exterior buffs with the acknowledgment. It gets loud and sprawling but the other one won’t leave the rock, so they share surface awkwardly, less and less willing to cohabitate, to build anything together. As the one evens out its mass, the other gets underfoot, irking and spiny.

My Polish Glot is prickly, and though it has endured years of flattening by its fat English rock-mate, every so often it unfurls its tongue, sticky as ever, just to declare its continued being. It will bide its time. It knows it is still needed.


New countries force me to reckon with my fragile bilingualism. The stunting of my childhood Polish is a source of shame, but it continues to color and shape my approach to language, and I tend to exploit it whenever most advantageous. Over and over I make transcontinental moves full of an unearned confidence in the universality of my linguistic repertoire. Over and over I am reminded that, if nothing else, new countries are full of new ways to be wrong.

I thought I could stomp around for a few years on this Chinese delta, clumsy in an endearingly alien way. Instead, I found the Mandarin r, curled between tongue tip and hard palate where I’d never had to hold anything before. My tongue is weak there, it can’t take the intimacy, wants to push the sound forward into a roll or gutter it back. The English Glot sits smugly on its high ground, knowing its value. It is the default. It waits to be called into action. It assumes the sun will shine back down on it any moment now.

Downpour is its own language. Rain smells different here, the birds have voice boxes wound into different stock melodies. I am still tuned to the frequencies of my previous place with its previous woes and its previous dance steps. I know the crunch of a Warsaw autumn, can identify a clear Detroit moon note or the breathy violence of a Roanoke sunset. But this Guangzhou is all trapped water and it sits on the mouth in ways I never knew possible. Soft marbles of sound to be shifted and cleared and beaded out in ritual movements I have not yet learned.

Don’t we all speak in water? Look up and know it’s coming? Know not to inhale when we are dropped into it? Know when to ingest it? When it spells disaster?

We can climb onto rocks and croak all we want. If we don’t get out of the way, the water will flatten us eventually. And when I feel flattened, that English Glot gets flattened right along with me. Pompous and high on prestige, it’s surprisingly easy to deflate. That’s when the Polish one, all bone and beak, props itself up with a clear shot to the sky. It opens its mouth and drowns out all consideration of the personal and political with a barrage of secret language thrill. A knee-jerk defense to combat those feelings of burning strangeness: You think that’s alien? You just wait. I can alien with the best of them. And then it will belch whatever it chce, because it knows nobody naokoło will understand, and it’s been crushed under another głos for too długo and it knows co jest down there and has gone troszkę dziki i pęknięty. Szalona zagubiona, dokąd uciekałaś?
Co ty kurwa robisz?

Translations of Polish words: wants…around…voice…long…what is…a little wild and cracked. Crazy lost one, where did you run away to? What the fuck are you doing?

Adriana Rewald (she/her) is a writer and translator who was born in Detroit and raised in Warsaw, Poland. She received her MFA from Hollins University, and her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Artemis, Toho, The Roanoke Review, poets.org, and elsewhere. Her work as an international school teacher has taken her to South Korea, Serbia, and, currently, China.