Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bug Called Bilingualism

By Man vyi, via Wikimedia Commons
It starts innocently enough: a desire to communicate, to be polite, that drives you to learn the basics of a language. As you spend time with the people who speak that language, it creeps a little further into your system: a longing to understand the whys and hows, the history - to know not just the words, but the nuance behind them. Then you find yourself stopping in the middle of a foreign street, uncertain of the words flowing through your own head, and it hits you: you're bilingual.

The symptoms of bilingualism manifest slowly, and often go completely unnoticed until you're living in another place, steeped in its language and the cultural patterns that come with it 24 hours a day. The progression, once you know the basics of a language and are immersed in it, goes something like this:
  1. You feel excited but overwhelmed by all of the new auditory and visual input flowing into your brain: at markets, in stores, in restaurants - anywhere you interact with locals. You make use of the basic vocabulary you've built up, occasionally stumbling or forgetting a word. You're exhausted by dinnertime every day from working so hard to keep up and communicate; you sleep a lot.
  2. Your bilingual dictionary is your new best friend. You rush to it when you get home to look up the half dozen words you really could have used on that coffee date, read the newspaper with it open on the table beside you and reach for it at random moments to look up a word you've just realized you might need. You battle occasional bouts of uncharacteristic shyness when speaking, terrified of choosing the wrong word or saying something that makes you sound ridiculous.
  3. Your speech becomes less stilted, you lose the excruciating self-consciousness that used to plague you when making casual conversation and you occasionally hear yourself using words you had no idea you knew. You cautiously expand your reading material and, though you still look up words for their precise definition, the context gives you the general idea and you rely less heavily on the dictionary. When traveling to nearby countries where you know just enough of the language to get around, you often find yourself tongue-tied, struggling to get the words of the third language past the second language that wants to be center-stage in your head and on your lips. You worry that the locals who speak the third language are going to think you're incapable of human speech.
  4. You start to make an occasional joke that the locals actually find funny for its content, not your pronunciation or word choice, and don't have trouble understanding common idioms, though the more obscure ones may still throw you off. You no longer have to concentrate so hard to catch every word that's spoken to you and it's been a while since you've had to ask someone to repeat what he said. When you talk to people at home, you pull literal translations of phrases you commonly use in the other language into your native speech patterns. This sometimes results in your friends asking why "bizarre" or "super" is suddenly your favorite word.
  5. You dream in the local language. This sometimes begins with a few sentences here and there in the dream and sometimes starts with a full-blown, detailed dream entirely in the second language. When the latter is the case, depending on how immersed in the language you've been, it may take a while for you to realize the dream wasn't in your native language. You're comfortable with the local language, and kind of smug about it.
  6. You fall into the linguistic "black hole." You're speaking normally and, all of a sudden, your mind goes completely blank and refuses to come up with the next word you want - in either language. This happens with alarming frequency for a while, making you wonder if trying to master another language has the side effect of slowly erasing your brain's capacity for rational thought and, if so, why no one told you.
  7. You're going about business as usual one day, thinking your thoughts, when you suddenly realize you don't know what language they're in. You stop in your tracks, wondering how it's possible you can't figure out what's going on inside your own head, when it hits you: who cares if there's something wrong with your brain? You're fluent in another language!
Bilingualism isn't something that goes away: variations on the later symptoms in the progression will continue to manifest throughout your life, punctuated by extreme excitement if you get to use your second language after not having had the opportunity for a while. With this comes a continuing interest in the society you lived in and a frustrated annoyance with other foreigners who discuss or write about it and "get it wrong." Occasional dreams in the language continue, sometimes seemingly out of the blue, and every now and then, when speaking your native language, all you can think of for the concept you're trying to talk about is the vocabulary for it in your second language.

Bilingualism is a bug you can live with. Some of the symptoms may be exhausting, disorienting and embarrassment inducing, but you learn to embrace them. They're merit badges - evidence that you look at the world and the life you live in it through multiple lenses, creating your own unique worldview that's informed and influenced by the cultures and the people you've spent time with and the languages that share space in your head. I'm bilingual, and I love every minute of it.

(WARNING: Contracting bilingualism may make you more susceptible to, or encourage a desire to experience, multilingualism. N.B. People whose native language is not English are often not nearly as excited by the idea of bilingualism as you think they should be, since many of them grew up with the idea that bilingualism was a necessary part of modern life, rather than an adventure to be savored. These people have also often mastered an intimidating number of languages and local dialects. It's perfectly acceptable to be in awe of them.)


Gina said...

This is such a cute post! I love it!

Andrea said...

Great post! I love the warning at the bottom.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writing. I grew up bilingually and then learned additional languages, so I know what you say is true -- especially joking, dreaming, and/or flirting in another language. Great to see some "travel" writing with some substance!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks everyone, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! (1worldimages, I love your Antarctica photos, by the way - that's one of my dream destinations, but probably still a few years down the road.)

Ayngelina said...

Being Canadian I grew up taking French but I am just waiting for the day I experience all of these things in Spanish.

Cam said...

Ah--bilingualism. Thinking in more than one language is something that I have experienced for a while and now I am experiencing it in a whole new way while trying to learn Georgian. I had a dream in Georgian very quickly after moving here, but I didn't understand what was being said. The next time I have such a dream I hope that this has changed!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Ayngelina - it'll come! Spanish is on my list, too, although I can't decide which accent I should learn it with. (And thanks for the stumble!)

Cam - I'm with you on crazy language dreams, although I haven't had one in a language I didn't understand yet! Some people say when you start dreaming in a language, you know you're fluent, but I disagree - I think it just means that you're attuned to it, and that your brain is getting used to processing it. Fingers crossed that you wake up from your next dream in Georgian realizing you understand more of it than you thought!

Anonymous said...

its great speaking more than one language, it gives you so much freedom

zablon said...

speaking more than one language give you more freedom

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Very true!