I imagine the title of this article will have thrown a couple of people. Being bilingual is meant to be an incredible life skill, not a struggle – bilinguals are not some persecuted minority, suffering from discrimination. Of course, that is not my claim, and I will continue to encourage anyone to broaden their horizons by learning a language. I myself speak French, and can still eke out some scrappy German if needed. It offers a completely new perspective on life and the world, yet comes with its own unique set of struggles and difficulties.
Although the two languages I speak set me up well for travelling in large chunks of Europe, it can become surprisingly frustrating to visit a country where you don’t speak the language. Having spent a lot of my time abroad in Francophone countries, it still comes as quite a shock to visit somewhere like Italy, Spain or Greece and not being able to converse in the native language. It makes me feel like the stereotypical, ignorant English tourist – something I can conveniently avoid in Francophone and Germanic countries.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t try to speak the local lingo. The problem being that it becomes all too easy to default to one of your other languages. This is a particular problem when travelling in the likes of Italy and Spain, where the language sounds very similar to French – I have memories of trying to order food in Italy and repeatedly lapsing into French! Similarly, on a trip to Denmark a few years ago, I would constantly mistake German as the local language.
I have memories of trying to order food in Italy and repeatedly lapsing into French
Speaking multiple foreign languages can also pose much the same issues. Although my German is now very rusty, when I was learning both German and French in tandem, it was far too easy to get the languages mixed up. Even though they stem from completely different language families, there remains lots of linguistic crossover, and when struggling to remember a word in one language, I often still fill in the gap with my other language!
This is something that has even begun happening when speaking English, as I drop in random French words and phrases that express what I want to say better, only for people to have no idea what I am actually trying to express. I find this a particular problem with French, as it has some very elegant phrases that either make you sound pretentious or incomprehensible in English.
Overall, however, these tribulations are nothing compared with the thrills of bilingualism. These struggles, particularly the latter, can also serve to massage one’s ego, reminding everyone else that you are bilingual!