Being bilingual is pretty awesome, in case you didn’t know yet. Some people grow up with two languages; others have to put a lot of time and effort into becoming fluent in another tongue as an adult. I grew up in Germany as a German monolingual, then started learning English in school from age 10. But somehow, no matter how proficient I became, I never considered myself bilingual – until I made the move to New York. Maybe it’s the experience of having lived in an English-speaking country for five months now, or the daily practice I’ve been getting. Whatever the reason, it seems like I have finally, truly become bilingual. And there are some peculiarities that come with speaking – and thinking and writing – in more than one language on a daily basis that I thought worth sharing.
Sometimes I think in English, sometimes in German. I write in both English and German, I speak in both languages. Usually this switch-over from one to the other happens automatically and is just another intrinsic part of your brain’s bilingual operation system. As long as you’re focused, that is. Just this morning I found myself lost in thought over something I was working on, then came out of it when I picked up a snippet of conversation across the office. Why, my brain wondered for a second, are these people talking in English? Then I realized where I was and things made sense again.
Similar things happen when you’re tired and your brain is not willing to think about who you’re actually talking to before contacting a language system. I had quite a few amusing sleepy encounters with my roommates in university because of this. (It needs clarification first that I speak a very distinctive German dialect, both my friends do not. So I automatically switched over to standard (or high) German with them and all other friends at university. I like to think of this as a form of bilingualism which… it kind of is.) Addressing your friends in a slightly weird version of their native tongue is one thing; they’ll probably get it. But talking to your colleagues in a language they don’t speak is probably probably not the most productive thing to do. So make sure you’re awake when you go in to work. (I’ve escaped a similar slip-up so far. Aside from the odd German word out here and there I’ve managed to stay awake and alert enough throughout my days to stick to English.)
People in the Twilight Zone
There is a very simple reason why it’s so easy to switch from one language to another (if you’re awake and alert, that is): You start putting people and places into language boxes. Office: English. Friends in New York: English. Mom & Dad: German. Restaurants: English. Everyone (everywhere) fits into a category, and each category has a language label. But then there’s that one person who fits into two boxes and all of a sudden things get confusing. I am not the only native German-speaker in the office in New York. But talking in your native tongue can become incredibly awkward when you have to make a switch that is not expected.
Again an example from my days of dialect-bilingualism: My oldest friend back in Germany and I grew up in the same town, spoke the same dialect. Then we ended up at the same university, both with friends who didn’t understand us, so we adjusted – and started to drop our dialect even when talking to each other. She became the epitome of my Twilight Zone because the language switch with her became really hard. We’d get stuck on standard German, even back home, until my family started giving us strange looks because we were not speaking in our ‘native’ dialect, which to them sounded forced.
What this proves to me is this: As intrinsic and natural a part of our being languages may become, there will always be something hiding just around the corner, ready to trip us up. But this challenge of bilingualism is also what makes it so rewarding: Carrying out everyday tasks in different voices is a constant puzzle to solve that will keep your brain fit and make you smarter. So go on out and learn and you will never, ever regret it.
What is your bilingual story?