Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 9, 2009

Bi- or tri-lingualism : the words that make us English

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.

Jolly Wicked ActuallyWhat 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.



  1. Hello,

    As a French, I have problem to understand word like oik. Is this definition the ( rigth one ?

  2. Hi Dom: if you follow the link to the Sunday Times article you will read that oik has a peculiarly English connotation of nastiness:
    ‘Coupling class prejudice and sexism — there is no female equivalent — combined with condescension, hostility and implied self-satisfaction, this abrupt and enduring little word conjures up a very English nexus of nastiness. It has usually been employed to disparage or dismiss someone perceived as socially inferior and irritating — perhaps simply because they are socially inferior — or to label as uncouth, coarse and/or vulgar.’ I guess the ‘socially inferior and irritating’ is part of essential ‘feeling’ of the word…

    and so, you would not necessarily use it in polite conversation!..

  3. I’m not bilingual, but my daughter in law is, and I do find myself being careful of the types of idioms I use around her (although less so the longer she’s here!) I think of it as being courteous to her, I suppose, not injecting words in the conversation which would be difficult for her.

  4. The grandchild of four you mention makes me remember an old friend of mine – who by the way it is now very long I haven’t heard of him -, a Catalan who was married to a Swede and they had two children who must be adult by now. At home they spoke Catalan, Sweddish, English, French, German and Castillian (the most spoken language in Spain which is erroneously named Spanish, as in Spain there are four official languages: Castillian, Catalan, Gallician and Vasque). Well these two children understood all the languages spoken at home but spoke a unique language interspersed with words of all of them. When they grew up they could discern which language was which. A curious case, indeed.

    By the way I must say they speak Catalan in Catalonia, Balearic Isles and Valencia, although the two latter regions insist their languages are Balearic and Valencian.

  5. Becca – yes, that confirms what I thought and I think you are being very considerate! Strange thing is that I had not really thought about this was happening until we were talking about it the other day…
    Jose: and then you wonder what goes on in those poor kids’ heads… 🙂 You’ve got to admire them, getting on with it!

  6. I wish I had grown up speaking more than one language! I am so envious of people who are bilingual or even trilingual.

    When talking to someone I know isn’t native to the US, I guess I do sometimes try to explain myself a little more, but usually what happens is someone will say something in slang and the person will want to know what it means. Which can be fun to learn new phrases, or learn the phrase in a different language.

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