More than half of the world’s population is bilingual, according to recent estimates. However, only 1 in 4 UK citizens speak another language fluently and rates of multilingualism in the UK are some of the lowest worldwide.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, in light of these statistics, how differently my UK and international friends see the topic of multilingualism. When they find out I speak four languages, most European friends want to find out if we have any in common – other than English, of course. If we do, this may lead to a discussion in Spanish, German or, rarely, Dutch within a matter of minutes.
My UK friends, on the other hand, are impressed by my language skills and sometimes seem to think I’m some sort of genius, which I’m definitely not. They want to hear my story and understand how I developed this supposedly amazing language talent. Yet, while I might be good with languages, I know a lot of people far better than myself, and my story is pretty ordinary in an international community.
One of the biggest blessings of being raised multilingually is being able to speak two or more languages without an obvious accent
I was raised in Germany to a Dutch dad, and learnt English when I started school at the age of six. When I was 12 I started learning Spanish and Chinese – the two foreign languages offered at my school. I was decent at Spanish, but only developed fluency in the last two years of high school, due to lots of encouragement from my enthusiastic and passionate Sevillan teacher. In 10th grade, I decided to quit learning Chinese, because I didn’t enjoy memorizing a dozen characters each week, learning the correct stroke order and accompanying Pinyin, or practising my pronunciation until I got the tones right. Therefore, my ability to speak and read Chinese has rapidly deteriorated.
Many of my multilingual friends have similar histories and experiences with language learning. Even though we grew up speaking more than one language, learning another with few similarities to our own is still challenging.
One of the biggest blessings of being raised multilingually is being able to speak two or more languages without an obvious accent. Further, it becomes easier to pick up accents and local dialects when learning new languages. For instance, after having been in the UK for a year, many locals couldn’t tell that I wasn’t a UK native. This came in useful when looking for off-campus accommodation, as most private landlords thought I was British, which made viewing housing and submitting applications a lot easier.
Some words and idiomatic expressions are notoriously hard to translate because no equivalent word exists
On the flip side, our ability to imitate accents can mean that we lose our natural accent in our mother tongue. For instance, when I visit friends and family back home, people know that I’ve been abroad based on the melody and rhythm of my speech. I also mispronounce some complex words, or swallow syllables, and I often resort to English as a filler for German expressions that I can’t remember on the spot.
Another challenge most multilingual students will be familiar with is translating words between languages. Some words and idiomatic expressions are notoriously hard to translate because no equivalent word exists in the language to which we are translating. It once took me 10 minutes to explain to my mum what I meant when I said I was flabbergasted, because the German words verblüfft or überrascht aren’t quite the same. Similarly, I’ve struggled to translate the word Schadenfreude, the satisfaction you get from seeing the deserved misery of another person, to my non-German friends. The Dutch word gezellig, which describes the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere among friends, has also been particularly hard to explain.
I would encourage unilingual students to learn a foreign language
This lack of perfect translations has meant that it can be hard to convey the same emotions and ideas in two different languages, and this sometimes leads to misunderstandings. Additionally, I’ve felt like my personality changes based on the language I speak. In particular, I’m more polite English, conversational in Spanish, reserved in German, and open-minded in Dutch. Evidently I’m not alone in describing this effect with Miruna Mihaila having written an article about the relationship between language and personality earlier this year.
Yet, many of my unilingual friends are surprised by my accounts of this phenomenon. Then, they are often equally astonished to hear that I don’t feel most comfortable speaking my mother tongue. Even though I was raised speaking German and Dutch, English is the language that comes most naturally to me as I’ve spent so much time in an English-speaking environment.
I think these differences in perception between unilingual and multilingual people are fascinating to observe, and I would encourage unilingual students to learn a foreign language. Aside from making travel a whole lot easier, living the multilingual life can change your view of the world.