The troubles of being bilingual (or at least trying to.)
It has been many years now that being able to speak another language is seen as a real advantage, which allows you to develop your neurological and cognitive abilities and even delay the start of Alzheimer’s disease.
Knowing and speaking a foreign language (English above all others) seems essential in the XXIth Century, and particularly on a professional level. Have you ever seen a job offer in which it’s not needed to at least have some English notions? The enthusiasm is such that more and more parents are putting their kids into bilingual/multilingual schools, for it’s well known that you learn faster when you’re a kid.
Honestly, I’ve always thought of bilingual/multilingual people as some sort of ingenious fairy being. They fascinate me and I envy them so much. I would classify them just next to unicorns, Albert Einstein and Tinkerbell. Be aware that I use here the word ‘bilingual’ with the simple definition of someone who’s able to express himself in a foreign language in daily life situations.
This is why I chose trilingual course when I started middle school. Since I was living close to Germany’s border, trilingual classrooms were meant to study both German and English. I wasn’t much interested in German at that time, but my interest for English was constantly growing. For the simple and good reason that I (initially) wanted to understand the meaning of my favourite songs (Ok, I’m clearly talking about Spice Girls and Britney Spears here.) Since then, the American Way of Life conquered the world, and between music, cinema, TV shows and books, I’ve always been looking for the meaning of the world out there, without any translations and filters. Let it be said, I wasn’t going to wait 42 years the release of the French version of the last Harry Potter book. And yes, Joey’s jokes in Friends are way funnier in English.
Even though I was able to understand and express myself in English, I’ve never seen myself as bilingual, for my skills were never really challenged in a fully English context. I travelled a lot, of course, across Europe, but always with some French company, which never allowed me to be fully immersed.
Needless to say that going to New Zealand for a year was the perfect occasion to finally become bilingual. I wasn’t that much worried, though, of travelling in an English-speaking country. And yet… Frustrations, personality disorders, misunderstandings, cultural barrier… There were surely a few things I wasn’t thinking of when I was thinking about bilingualism.
So, in concrete terms, what does it looks like living in a country that doesn’t speak your mother tongue?
How does it go trying to be bilingual? Do we really start dreaming in English? Do we finally let go of our silly French accent?
First of all, I will confirm you one simple thing. It’s only by living 24/7 in a country for a while that you really learn another language. When I first arrived in New Zealand, my English level was more than acceptable. I studied literature with an English option all along my scholarship. I watch movies and TV shows in English with subtitles, I listen to loads of Anglo-Saxon’s music and I sometimes read articles and even books in Shakespeare’s mother tongue. I was surely landing there with a certain baggage.
Except that. Kiwi folks have a very specific and singular accent, which turns ‘bed’ into ‘bid’ and ‘pen’ into ‘pin’ and it certainly does take a long (long) time to get used to it and fully understand them. This is the moment when you realize all the shades of (Grey) the different English accents in the world by meeting Britons, Americans, Australians, Irish, Singaporeans, and that, depending on where they’re coming from, they will even have different ways to express themselves. My ears were working continuously, trying to dissect those sentences, those words that often looks like a hell of a hullabaloo (and having originally some ear dyslexia doesn’t really help, believe me.) I noticed that I always need a few hours of acclimation to a new accent, for my ears were brainwashed for so long by only one English accent through the movie industry: the American (and specifically the Californian) one. And as well as there are loads of shades between English accents, there are also loads of expressions that will change from a country to another. And that’s a terrific fun to list kiwi expressions that were unknown before, like jandals, chur bro, sweet as, cuppa, bogans, heaps or even gumboots. The Maori language is also very present because most of the things are translated into Maori. Every single town, every single institution will welcome you with ‘Haere Mai’ (Hello/Welcome) and the towns, fauna and flora are making your mouth sing when you pronounce words like Pohutukawa, Whangamomona, Te Anau, Lake Tekapo, Pukeko or Taranaki.
LET’S WELCOME MY OLD FRIEND FRUSTRATION…
During my stay in New Zealand, if I had to associate one word with my bilingual experience it would certainly be ‘frustration’. Expressing yourself in another language generate a lot of frustration in daily life. Even though you mainly understand the language, it’s sadly never (never…) enough. As I’m still learning words in French, my mother tongue, I will always have to learn new words and new expressions in English my entire life. Except that, in that case, I was lacking basics. Stopping in the middle of a sentence because you can’t find how to call that thing in the kitchen with holes that you use after cooking noodles (yes, that’s a colander), that was magical. That was very nice and made me very proud learning at school to read and analyse Shakespeare verbatim, but inside a kitchen I was completely helpless. Wisp, colander, sieve, cutlery, yolks, tea towels, how the fuck do I name those things in stupid English? Every single experience, every single step in my trip was opening new worlds of vocabulary: kitchen, gardening, navigation, hiking, produce, prison, fishery, etc. That was exciting of course, but at the same time that was awkwardly scary to realise how ignorant I was.
At the same time, that was another kettle of fish to recognize that my English pronunciation was shitty. Ok, it’s well known that the Frenchy accent is quite intense, recognizable and not so much of a cute one. That’s by meeting foreigners teasing me about my English speaking that I was able to target my weaknesses and try to correct them as well as I possibly could. You might think that you could say [prèti] (pretty)? Not even close, dear, that’s [priti]. Why is everyone giggling when you’re talking about Harry Potter? Simply because in English, [h] are not mute, you have to pronounce them, even insist on them. Are you ready? House, Ham, How are you, BREATHE IN!, Helmet, Habits, Hobbits, Hamburger, Harry Fucking Potter. Obviously, my progress in English is mainly due to the numerous jokes and teases I had to handle with while meeting other travellers…
Especially since I’m kinda old now (listen to the old lady), I’m not remembering everything instantaneously. It needs time and practice to make the words, sentences, expressions, mines. I remember pretty well how I confessed to my fellow helpers on Stewart Island that I wasn’t sure how to use properly the expression ‘do you reckon…?’ The kind of expression I was hearing all the time (and reading in Harry Potter!), that I entirely understood the meaning of it, but still wasn’t be able to make it mine. My mates ended up making me repeat the sentence every day in different contexts so I was finally able to use it. Because that’s also what the language is, it’s quite nice to understand it, but at some point you have to make it yours, it has to belong to you, and it requires practice, patience, and a minimum of self-confidence. Well, did I mention ‘frustration’ already?
ENGLISH THINKING, FRENCH THINKING. WHAT ABOUT DREAMING?
Really soon, I started to think in English and dream in English. Not all the time, and even sometimes my head was mixing up both languages, in a very specific fluent and neat way, and yet very understandable. My inner voice integrated this new language quite naturally. And hearing it everywhere all around me, every day, and sometimes continuously (meaning without any French interruption for a while) brought my inner voice(s) to speak to me in English. It could have seemed such a hullabaloo from the outside, but those voices kind of established themselves very naturally, without any confusion.
I started to dream in English. I mean, this probably had been a wise mix of French, English and dreamy non-identified language. In fact, I think that dreaming in English was simply the consequence of thinking in English and being able to assimilate the English logic.
You can often read on the Internet that by the time you’re dreaming in another language, you can proudly say you’re bilingual. I don’t know. I think hearing all-day-long a foreign language has some kind of influence over our dreams, our unconscious mind. I’m pretty sure I would start dreaming in Greek if I was living in Athens for a whole month, even though I’m not speaking Greek. At all. Or at least some kind of dreamy-non-identified-Greek language.
LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO MY ENGLISH-SELF.
‘- I’m Céline.
- Selena ?
- Céline. Cé-li-ne.
- Celina ?
What I was barely conceiving was this capacity that English had to influence directly my personality. At some point, I was questioning myself about being so different… In English. My Italian friend (yeah, that Italian Lover), loved to tell about the differences between his English self and his Italian self. He even gave them two different names. He explained to me that his English personality was slightly different obviously because his vocabulary wasn’t as extensive as it was in Italian. Same for idiomatic expressions and figures of speech. And this slight difference was actually changing loads of things in his behaviour. He’s absolutely right, of course, for I was the first to specify to my foreign mates how ‘funnier’ I was in French (yes, I do.) And especially since French humour isn’t the same as New Zealander’s and can often be misunderstood. I even reached a point where my English-me totally overcame and hearing myself speaking French felt mysteriously wrong. I couldn’t find my favourite expressions and my language habits as easy as I was originally able to (and it’s still happening sometimes to be honest.) And the most incredible happened… I really liked this English version of myself. I still do. Even though I’m struggling to express my feelings, that I’m stumbling over words, and expressing myself like a kid… I’m more sociable in English, my behaviour is different, more open, and friendlier, my tone is different and my voice might be too.
I dared more in English. I wasn’t quite me, or an altered version of myself, so I could dare. I was even going for it. I was freely talking to strangers, even if it meant making grammatical mistakes. I was developing in parallel another version of myself. My English-self had to be brave facing bankers, customs officers, government employees, bosses, Department of Conservation workers, tourist offices agents (I-Site), hostels and campsites managers, and all kinds of authority figures, in English. My English-self had to be brave enough to call Emirates and book my flights in English. For those who know me a bit, I’m quite an anguished person about phone calls — okay, let’s say I truly HATE phone calls. So, you can picture me locking myself in a room all by myself, seeking calm and silence to simply call Emirates. And now, all of those things are just so Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy (clap your hands — thanks!)
The logic of the language you’re speaking is also slightly changing our way of thinking, our thinking mechanism. English is simpler, more concise, but, even though, every single shade is recognisable. Each noun can potentially become an adjective and words can easily combine to each other to define precise ideas. English is, and that’s just my own opinion, lacking poetry, but it offers this large freedom of language combinations that seems unlimited. My personality was yet simplified, as my vocabulary, so I was easily coming to the point, and cutting the crap. What I truly missed, though, was to master the language enough to be able to play with it and even make up new words, as I love to do it in French.
Another interesting thing is that at some point the immersion into the language is such that you’re losing your marks, and your French expressions. It’s all a big-messy-upside-down-situation. I started to stumble over French words while Skyping my mother, I couldn’t remember my favourite French expressions for the English equivalences seemed to make more sense. I’d come to think in English, English was a part of me, I finally integrated it.
In the end, while traveling for a long time, your whole personality is going through loads of changes, and it’s incontestably also due to the language you’re speaking — if you’re not expressing yourself in your mother tongue. Those changes seem imperceptible; and the funniest part is that my Foreign mates would never meet my French self, as my French friends would never meet my English-self. But now I know.
Amongst the 42 thousand shades of me playing cymbals in my head, some are playing in English.