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Monday, May 9th, 2011

Issues with Living Multilingually


My two “pet issues” with living multilingually are closely related.

Issue number one is “multilingual schizophrenia.” I don’t know whether there is an official term for it, so this is my term. I feel slightly different depending on what language I speak, almost as if my personality changes a little bit when I switch languages.

Issue number two is “language forgetting,” or in my case “mother-tongue forgetting.” I live abroad and I only speak my native German with my children on a regular basis. They are young–not the ideal partners for sophisticated exchanges, at least not yet… I also do not read half as much as I did before. And most of what I read is in English.

More than the Sum

Put those two together and you get more than you bargained for.

I am pretty sure we change all the time. There are probably stages in our life when we go through more pronounced changes, like when we leave school, start our first job or move to a different place. None of those match going abroad, though, in terms of how we can feel it happening.

Two reasons come to mind: the sheer overwhelming experience of being thrown into a new culture make the change feel more substantial even though it might not be as radical as, say, starting a first job after university. Culture is very fundamental to who we are. Going abroad takes away a strong foundation that we probably took for granted.

Example: look at the confusion on the face of Germans when they learn that “Dagobert Duck” is called something totally different in English. They will inevitably ask “But Donald Duck? He is called Donald Duck, right?” and there will be a mixture of hope and utter disbelief in their voice, almost like you just shattered everything and the next thing is that gravity will stop working.

Secondly, speaking a new language makes the change very tangible. There you are, talking and not sounding like yourself. It’s actually pretty difficult at first, at least for those of us who didn’t grow up multilingually.

You are making an effort, you are translating while you speak. You can hear every word you speak, every syllable. That is unusual, because when you speak your native language you’re not aware of it. You find yourself judging your own efforts while you make them. And you might obviously fall short, right? I mean this is not like you speak usually, is it? You can be slick and eloquent! But you’re speaking an unfamiliar language now and it is a long way to fluency…what else do you need to drive home the fact that there is a change going on.

And then, gradually, you feel your mother tongue fade. You are becoming this person that speaks another language! That’s a big “wow” moment and also more than just a tad scary. You are turning into someone else.

So, here is my warning: do not live abroad! You will forget who you are! It’s a terrible thing!

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsExpat Life Explained | InCultureParent   |  Tuesday, 12 July 2011 at 3:05 pm

    […] was obviously joking when I told you not to live abroad. Living abroad is probably the second most amazing thing I have done in my life. Right after […]

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