Whenever I tell people my children are bilingual (and in one case, multilingual), without exception they say ‘how wonderful!’ But is it?
Yes, it’s convenient to be able to ask if there’s any meat in the vegetable soup when miming might lead to some very unusual meals; yes, it’s a pleasure to watch films without dubbing or subtitles (and the occasional mistranslation or omission); yes, it’s an even greater satisfaction to read a text with all the subtleties and wordplay and cadences intact. And there’s no doubt that you can say things in one language that you can’t in another, at least not with the same resonance. A dog is not a Hund is not a chien. Language does indeed influence thinking and imagining and being, how could it not? And there’s been considerable work done in recent years on the cognitive advantages for children who learn more than one language: here one example. Bialystok has also conducted some research into bilingualism’s potential benefits regarding ageing.
But you pay a price. Bilingualism is not a switch with only on or off. Mostly I’ve found – and this is purely anecdotal – that very few people are 100% bilingual, with all this implies – childhood songs, fairytales, TV programmes, holiday rituals, ad slogans, i.e. all the cultural history embedded in language. Things are missing which most monolinguists take for granted.
Missing, too, can be a certain richness of vocabulary and idiom, as well as a complexity of expression, unless you’re specially trained, highly literate, or just damned gifted. Worst, however, is a sense of never being quite at home in any language – an exile as painful as any which is geographical, for it involves an inner dislocation. I’m not quite the same person when I speak English or German (or to a lesser extent, French). Even when I’m back in my native land, speaking my native tongue, something foreign remains. So who am I? And there are days when no language seems to fit, or when I seem to feel confident in none, despite ostensible fluency. Sometimes it’s as simple as, Is this really correct in English? But more often it’s a far deeper question of identity and voice. Perhaps what bilingualism reveals is that there are no true texts of the self, only translations.