Dinner table conversation this week strayed to bi-lingualism and how at times, however fluent you felt you were in your first, second or third language, there would always be times that you felt at a loss, that there would be words and expressions you had not come across previously as a child, everyday words and expressions, games you had played in one language or culture and that you could not on the spur of the moment ‘translate’ into one of the other languages you speak.
Our conversation was between family members who lived in different countries. At the table was also the grandchild of four who made perfect sense of English spoken to her but who would steadfastly respond in German, unless urged to repeat phrases in English. Her father juggles between three languages: English, German and Dutch and for good measure is half-Iranian by birth. I am bi-lingual English / Dutch with an excellent understanding and with good spoken German, some French and in the past a smattering of farsi as well. English husband sat listening to it all, mesmerised by what we were saying.
Son proclaimed that he knows as a non-native living in Germany, people around him will unconsicously compensate for him being a ‘non-native speaker’, they will adapt their day-to-day conversation to the language and use of words that they assume he will easier understand, even though his German is fluent. That is because he may use an odd inflection, have a slight accent.
I have had similar experiences in England, even though most of the time most peopel assume that I am English: until I given hem my name and surname which both are recognisably Dutch. Once they know I am not English, and even colleagues do this, they ask questions like ‘do I think in English, do I dream in English’ and when they use a piece of slang they think they need to explain to you what it means. Weird. Husband pondered and said that perhaps he had been ‘guilty’ of this perhaps, unconsciously, by adapting his language…
As far as remembering words in one language or another is concerned, sometimes I can be stuck for a Dutch word, because I have alwasy used the concepts related to the word, in English, or vice versa. At times there is not the continuum that non-bilingual people have – my experiences can be cut up in different segments and so if certain experiences have only taken place in one culture or language and not repeated elsewhere, then I may be at a loss for a word or phrase. For example, years ago, when a colleague/friend noticed that there was a swimming pool in the hotel we were staying, she said ‘ah good, I’ve brough my cozzie’, I had to think but realised she was talking about her bathing suit.
What makes me think of this conversation we had this week is an article in today’s Sunday Times ‘The Culture’ section ‘The words that make the English’. September 3rd will see the publication of a book called Jolly, Wicked, Actually which is about the subtlety and complexity of the Englsh language. The extract published in Culture refers to the usage of words such as Actually, Posh, Yob, Oik, Fusspot, Grotty, Innit and Crumpet.
Now, I have no difficult whatsoever with any of these words and have used all of them some time or other in my day to day conversations, or in writing – I guess it probably makes me truly bi-lingual, at least as far as English and Dutch are concerned!
I will get a copy of the book though, if only to satisfy my curiousity and of course because I am always intrigued by words and language usage!
As you may have guessed, these have been busy weeks with visits, family and evening meals around the dining room table, as well as the day to day work. Nevertheless, I still managed to read a book or two and will comment shortly!
For now, I’m just curious if there are any bilingual readers / speakers out there and to hear your views on this idea that native speakers subtly adapt (without intent, but subconsciously) their language usage once they realise you are a non-native speaker, even if a truly bilingual one.