I’m bilingual. Or perhaps trilingual. There are a number of languages jostling for space in my head, and I have the kind of mind that makes a difference that way – I can pick up random words in languages I do not speak, just in passing, or even in languages I barely recognize. When I was in Tahiti, for less than two weeks, I left being able to say hello and thank you and a handful of other things in the local language and long conversations with an island-born French-speaking security guard at the same time.What this means is that every now and then I have the kind of problems that some people might envy – but which doesn’t make them any the more pleasant when they happen to me. In the main it’s encapsulated in a single problem, really – the instant in which I have the PERFECT word for what I want to say… in the wrong language,
Because my two main languages are so ingrained – one is my cradle tongue and the other is the language I DREAM in – I can turn on a dime here, and I can literally switch up languages in the middle of a sentence and just carry on talking in the OTHER tongue, the one in which the perfect word came up.
I did this to wonderful advantage back at University . It was back in the day when not everyone had cellphones. We had a communal telephone in the hall of my residence, and that is where parents would phone their daughters. I remember several instances in which I would be talking to my father in our own language and then, because I was talking about something that had happened in my (English speaking) current environment and the reference in my head was in English, I would just flip mid-sentence and carry on talking in English (and on several occasions there were people who were passing by who gave me bewildered double takes because I had just switched from what they heard as polysyllabic gibberish into something entirely understandable to them in the time it took them to walk the three steps from the residential corridor to the elevator. But I could do that with my dad because we both spoke both languages and fluently enough for this to be possible.
But when I’m writing, and I hit this wall, it’s really frustrating –because there I am, mid flow, and the PERFECT WORD IS RIGHT THERE except that it is in the wrong language and then I have to hunt around in the clutter in my brain for the English equivalent, if there is one and sometimes there is not. Which means I end up falling over my own feet trying to paraphrase or come up with an equivalent or even something that’s remotely related. I can’t just SKIP it because it matters to the rest of the narrative and by the time I solve the puzzle I’ve been kicked out of my own damn story and I have to patiently work back to where I was so I can actually continue to where I was heading in the first place. But I usually end up getting to that destination in an entirely new train of thought.
Or sometimes I am writing, and some toggle gets thrown and I come to a screeching halt staring at an English word, thinking, “Is that REALLY how you spell that?” – and no, it doesn’t have to be a complex or a rare word. Sometimes it’s “the”. You see, my own mother tongue doesn’t have “spelling”. We write what we say, exactly, phonetically, and when that toggle gets thrown I am stuck with my mind struggling to phonetically pronounce “the”, and it trips over its own feet and lands in a heap gibbering quietly.
I’m a language nerd, have been all my life. I pick up words easily. I pick up accents and pronunciations – when I talk to individuals with different English accents mine changes to match, instinctively. I don’t try to do it to take the mickey out on anyone, but when I’m in the UK, say, I do sound a LOT more British than when I am yakking to people in the States. My grasp of accent is such that when I speak a language I am NOT completely fluent in people assume that I am because my ACCENT is so good. This can lead to its own problems.
I remember making the mistake once of asking an increasingly upset French-speaking woman once what the issue was to see if I could help because nobody else seemed able to understand her, or she them. She responded with such a rapid barrage of French that it was all I could do to just throw my hands in the air and beg, “Lentement! Lentement!” (and no she did not slow down. I don’t know that she could have…)
My German is even more rudimentary than my French but there was that one time when I was in Gottingen, this beautiful old German university town, with an aunt who lived in Germany and a friend I was travelling with, from South Africa. On our meanders we stopped at a street pretzel seller and I greedily devoured a pretzel – one of those glorious German ones which you don’t GET anywhere else – and I ended up eating it too fast, or perhaps it was too dry, and I got the hiccups. At some point, after this, we stopped at one of those German patisserie places where you just point at the display case and say, oh, I’ll just have one of everything… and we sat down to have some tea and pastries. But our server approached at a crucial moment where my aunt, the only fluent German speaker amongst us, had left to visit the ladies leaving my friend (who spoke not a word and was utterly useless under the circumstances) and me, with my hiccups, at the table. I gave the man our order, in German, SO FAST, trying to stuff all of it in between two hiccups so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. He went away and when he brought back our stuff it was all perfectly correct according to what we had asked for. I’m sure the man thought I had been born speaking German.
When I’m in full writing mode my headspace is usually English, because that’s the language I write in. But I’m writing about bilingualism and I’ve triggered that Other, even without trying. Even writing this blog post – perhaps especially writing this blog post – I had to stop a couple of times and go, “hm, is that really how you spell that?”.
People are generally envious of other people’s ability to speak other tongues. But just remember, sometimes it’s like fishing for mountain trout in the ocean when it comes to finding a way to coherently express one’s thoughts. Yes, it’s a wonderful problem to have. We multilingual people are blessed by having the ability to do that at all. It’s all good… except when you start wondering how to spell “the” in the middle of an otherwise perfectly sane sentence.