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.


8 thoughts on “A dog is not a Hund is not a chien

  1. Lee 17 years ago

    Liliya, it sounds as if you’ve written your books in English. Will you tell us a bit about them?

    Thanks, T. Do you speak only English with your children?

  2. T. 17 years ago

    Lee, wonderful post. I grew up in a country that at one time had all the things you mention in two languages – children’s songs, inside jokes, TV commercials, etc., in English and Tagalog. I loved your last line about translations of of the self – BRILLIANT!

  3. Anonymous 17 years ago

    hi Lee, i’m in Ukraine, which is of course a Ukrainian-speaking country, but I get away with Russian… No blog, but two children’s books coming out next year, both (among other things) about life in Ukraine

    Ann – wow, can’t imagine writing such a personal thing as a blog in a second language


  4. Lee 17 years ago

    Hi Ann, I had no idea you weren’t a native speaker and certainly don’t find your English ‘severely limited’. But I know exactly what you mean by out of date. Just yesterday I noticed an archaic use of ‘disco’ in MORTAL GHOST, which I’m going to have to change.

    Exiled multilingual – I like that.

  5. Ann 17 years ago

    One myth about bilingualism is that you are perfect in both/all languages. The best description I’ve seen, which also matches my experience, is if you use two or more languages on a daily basis in your ordinary life. You don’t have to be good at everything.

    I believe they say bilinguals are more intelligent. I like that idea.

    I think Lee that you and I now belong in a different group from the one we were born into; that of the exiled multilingual. It’s just a different kind of belonging.

    As you know, I blog, and I do it in English, while feeling like a fake. But I couldn’t blog in my mother tongue, because it is no longer up to date. I have a better vocabulary in it, but it’s aged. I also don’t know what people there really want to hear about because I don’t live there, even though I visit several times a year. So I plod away in my severly limited English, not belonging in either place.

    I go home in both directions, but when in my first home I feel closer to the Moroccan pizzeria owner than some of my relatives, because we now have more in common. In England I enjoy the company of other exiles from my country, because we are similar in a way we would never have been if we’d stayed put.

    Could go on forever…

  6. Lee 17 years ago

    Hi Liliya. Yes, this all sounds very familiar. Do you blog? I’d love to read about your experiences in a Russian-speaking country. Which one is it?

  7. Anonymous 17 years ago

    interesting. I’m in no sense bilingual but I live in a russian-speaking country and spend most days speaking russian (as opposed to native english). Some friends have bilingual children but it’s noticeable how at a very early age they tend to choose one language over another. Knowing another language certainly uses new bits of brain and widens my appreciation of my own language, but yes, sometimes I feel lost and linguistically homeless. Have you noticed how some individuals are quite different people when they speak different languages? A kind of linguistic schizophrenia