How does it feel to be bilingual? Or rather: multilingual?

photo29Bilingualism – an interesting topic and a promising field of research. But I’d argue that it’s equally intriguing to have a look at the other side of it: how does it feel to be actually bilingual or multilingual? What does it bring along and how can it be used? In short, how does it influence one’s life?

I’m fully aware that there is no one answer to this question, but then, maybe it’s even a reason more to ask it! You never know what you might find out 🙂 . Here’s one captivating story of someone who has never stopped learning new languages:

Tina Van Roeyen

Of languages and beyond

My mom likes to say that I started talking late, but when I finally did, I could speak four languages. Since my mom tends to exaggerate, this is a lie. I only spoke three. It was four at the age of six.

I was born to a Lebanese father and a Polish mother who spoke English between them. Which gives us Arabic, Polish and English. At six, I was put into the French school of Warsaw without speaking one word of French. I picked it up quickly and French remains to this day one of my strongest languages – the language of education and research.

When I was 11-12, although Spanish was very appealing to me, I started learning German, maybe more for practical reasons (German being the first foreign language in Poland). Spanish will have to wait.

At 16-17, I went back to my love for Latin languages and got acquainted with Italian. People often say it’s an easy language, but this is not something I take into account while approaching a new language.

Being back then young and stupid, I was a perfectionist and unfortunately that has blocked me for years with German and Italian. Specially German. Since I don’t speak it perfectly, I won’t speak it at all. This was a mistake that prevented me from progressing. Whereas for Italian, I only really started speaking it in Brussels, a real international city with loads of Italians 🙂

Before that, however, I got to realize a part of my Spanish ambition and registered for a “course” lead by a couple of – what seemed to be – lost Mexicans. Although it was a disorganized, short thingy, I enjoyed myself and was very fast very good at it. See, for me, it was more than just another language – it was a small dream coming true. However, it was too short: I got some basics, and I picked up the rest on the way.

Coming back to German: it helped me enormously when I arrived to Belgium. It was clear as day to me that I would start learning Dutch. I loved my Dutch course although people usually hate this language, but again I did not do it for the language itself but for the opportunity of discovering and integrating my new country host. Till this day, I have done over 600 hours of Dutch that served me well and although I could not know it at the time – my husband is Flemish, which stands for specific-Dutch-speaking Belgian.

In 2010 I took a break from Dutch. I assessed I got to the level I wanted and it was time to go for something else. It would have been a good moment to retake some Spanish, but I wanted to move forward. I needed something new, something surprising and something challenging whereas I didn’t consider Spanish – or for that matter Dutch – as completely new encounters in my life.

So, at 33, I went for Portuguese. No one understood, of course, but they didn’t have to. Why Portuguese? Because I could – my employer offered Portuguese language courses. Because my ex-director of thesis was a Brazil freak and often talked about it. Because it’s harder than Spanish but still remains a Latin language. Although the beginnings were not obvious (Spanish could have really helped here!), I fell instantly in love with it and came to speak it much faster than for example our old friend German. Portuguese is much more than number nine on my list; it’s an exciting experience that enables me to discover a whole new world, from Macau to Brazil.

Between Italian and Spanish, I still did a year of Latin at the university, but it wasn’t a match. The teacher disliked me and I disliked the fixed rules. It reminded me of German – a language I never mastered. For me, now, a language is about connecting, communicating, sharing and exchanging. Although I intellectually can conceive the existence of a set of useful guidelines, this is not for me. Brrrr…

These are the facts. Do I feel smarter? No. I never feel comfortable when others bend in front of so much “accomplishment” because for me speaking different languages is as normal as breathing air. It would be like praising someone because s/he can play the piano or loves diving. Did speaking languages help me from a professional point of view? Yes, but I never wanted to make money on the back of my skills by becoming for instance an interpreter. I couldn’t possibly indorse such a responsibility and I don’t get excited about the exact meaning of some term that no one but five specialists understand. I do not like to spend hours in front of the screen, surrounded only by dictionaries. Thanks, but no thanks.

I need room for creativity, I need freedom. As I mentioned, my husband is Flemish. At home, we speak English, Dutch, French and some Polish. I want our soon-to-be-born baby girl to be exposed to those languages just like I was exposed to multilingualism when I was born. Together we come up with such neologisms like “chéri’ke” or “honey’tje”. I also love Brussels for that – here you can hear and practice anything from Gaelic to Pashto.

Also, as said before, I don’t feel more of a brain than someone who can speak two-three languages but I do believe speaking more languages makes you more curious and open, it renders you more reactive, intuitive and associative. I’m a quick-learner, have an eye for detail and am multitask oriented. I can speak Polish over the phone, type an email in English and conduct a conversation in French at the same time.

I’m not saying it doesn’t take practice or that everyone can do that. But anyone who cares about – thus who likes – languages, learning and growing. I do get lost at times between Italian and Portuguese, between German and Dutch. I don’t feel I excel at any of my languages. But it’s fine, I don’t need to either. Times where perfectionism withheld me from opening my mouth are over.

Also, my example shows it is not true that we master best our native language. I don’t speak Arabic, although it’s chronologically one of my first languages. I do speak and write Polish, but I never went to a Polish school, same for English. I can communicate in Spanish even if my only apprenticeship of this language lasted for two months or so. I speak much better Portuguese, Dutch or Italian than German, to which I (inefficiently) devoted much more time.

Furthermore, it’s not true that one gets along best with people of the same language. My first husband was a Pole and things haven’t work out so well between us. When we came to Brussels, the Polish milieu was the natural one for me/us to start networking but over the years, its importance has significantly and also naturally decreased.

My secret is that I always treated languages as fun. I never learnt them for a promotion or some other money or pressure related issue. My personal choice. My investment. Only the approach has, over the years, changed: from “it’s all or nothing” to “speak your mind no matter what”. I can’t speak perfectly Portuguese but I’m not afraid anymore of approaching strangers on a Brazilian beach and starting a conversation about nothing. So I guess accepting yourself and flaws is another helpful thing, yet beyond the strict language barrier.

Last but not least, although I like languages, there are far from being my only passion. I don’t treat them as an end in themselves. For me, languages (along with, for example, literature) are only a way, a way of putting people together. It’s not important what language you speak or how many languages you speak, but that you speak, at all.


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