16. October 2022

What is it like being bilingual?

Scrabble tile formation with word hello in different languages against yellow background

Being bilingual creates a very specific mindset. People lucky enough to grow up speaking two (or more) languages will not know any other reality. Those of us who weren’t so fortunate and had to achieve fluency in our second language(s) through years of hard work will be more aware of the way in which the establishment of another linguistic space rearranges your inner world.

I did not grow up bilingual. I only started learning German at school in the UK at age 11. A basic flair for the language meant that I excelled at the subject and went on to pursue it. First at university, where I studied English and German law, then by moving to the German-speaking area after graduation.

Even though I was good at German by British academic standards, I was nowhere near being bilingual when I fetched up in Vienna in 2004. As I remember, it was after about 3 years of constantly speaking the language in every situation from buying groceries at the supermarket to attending meetings at work that I realised I felt comfortable in it. All of a sudden, I noticed I wasn’t translating each and every sentence I said from English into German before I said it, but simply forming it in German.

It was also around that time that I discovered that I could “feel” the language rather than just communicate in it. At the time, a German pop group called Juli was enjoying a wave of popularity, with songs like “Warum” and “Die perfekte Welle” on heavy rotation on the radio. Their songs were catchy and the voice of the singer, Eva Briegel, was crystal clear. For the first time, I was able to enjoy the music and understand what the song was about.

I remember very clearly the moment when, listening to one of their songs, I did not just hear the words — I was also intensely moved by them. The song chimed with certain things going on in my (German-speaking) life at the time and — like all good songs — it gave me the words I’d been looking for to describe what I was going through. And the comfort that someone else had been in this place too.

That was it: I was no longer just a visitor to the language, an outsider looking in. I was in the house along with the natives, sharing their cultural, social and emotional lives. This was being bilingual.

It took another 7 years to feel like the language was as good as mine (it will never be a mother tongue — I simply started too late in life for that). That was 21 years of learning and work and dedication and getting stuff wrong to master this one foreign language. That is a long time — but German is now rooted deeply enough in my mind, my life and my own character that it will never go away.

Attaining bilingual status rewards the speaker by opening up an entirely new world and fresh perspectives on life. New words and phrases which do not exist in the mother tongue allow you to discover and experience other phenomena and feelings which there were no words in the first language to explain. Other denizens of the multi-linguistic world will understand this without explanation.

Whether we absorbed two languages along with our mother’s milk or obtained a second language later, those of us who belong to the Tribe of Two Languages share certain characteristics. Through common experience, we can relate. Here are a few of the things all multilingual people will understand:

1. Being a different person in the foreign language

I am a completely different person in German than I am in English. To some extent, this linguistic split-personality syndrome has to do with the fact that German was the language in which I worked in the legal sector. I learned it in a quite bureaucratic setting full of set legal phrases, which I absorbed as a matter of practicality to get the job done. I’ve never really completely come away from that, meaning that my communications in German can still sound a little formal and stiff to native speakers.

But over the years, a colloquial German language Katharine has also begun to take shape as I learned to play with the language and understand how to use it to replicate my humour — or to be creative, naughty…or crude!

Nevertheless, I think the German-speaking Katharine is a bit more direct, businesslike and less likely to take nonsense than the English one is. German is, after all, an excellent language for giving someone a bit of a tongue-lashing.

The German language Katharine was never a child.

2. You can “feel” words and phrases

Because languages are formed by the cultures that use them, there are certain words or phrases that describe phenomena, feelings or attitudes which are specific to that culture. If the respective phenomenon/feeling/attitude does not exist in the same form in the “home” culture, the mother tongue language may lack the words to precisely replicate it.

This happens in every language combination. I certainly find myself wondering at length how I can translate certain words in English/German properly into the respective other language. When I’m trying to figure out an appropriate translation, I often start by trying to “feel” the word or phrase I am trying to translate. In what situation do I use it? What emotional or mood space does it occupy in my mind? What feelings am I trying to trigger in the person I am speaking to?

Constructing an emotional framework of the word/phrase to be translated gives me a mental basis which I can then try and map onto the second language to look for an appropriate counterpart.

Perhaps the monolingual among you are thinking “woman what on earth are you talking about?”…but the multilingual will know exactly what I’m getting at here. They will also spend a sizeable amount of time doing something similar, trying to reconcile their own internal linguistic worlds with one another.

3. You start a sentence in one language but finish it in another…and don’t even notice the switch

This is something that happens to me when I’ve been speaking a lot of German. In general, my mother tongue and my second language are well separated in my brain and I don’t get confused. But if I am speaking as much English and German and switching frequently between the two, all communication seems to blend into one on the way from my brain into the outside world. The two languages become a single tool which I’m using to communicate something.

If I’m talking to someone who is equally fluent in English and German, they’ll just take the switch in their stride and we’ll probably continue the conversation without even commenting on the random linguistic turn. If, however, I am talking to someone who doesn’t understand German, it can take me somewhat by surprise when they say at the next juncture: “I’m terribly sorry, can you say that again in English please?”

4. All of this means…

You love talking to other people who are fluent in the same languages as you.

Because you can speak in one language, then the other, then jump back…or just throw in random words of German into an English sentence…or say a German idiom in English. Because you’re both on the same page, the mishmash doesn’t matter one bit.

5. You can use your life in another language as a kind of carapace

Because it creates a kind of second identity within the same person, being bilingual enables the speaker to escape or put distance between themselves and problems and pain associated with the mother tongue identity.

Slipping into the foreign language means being able to gain an objective view of those issues — or at least hold them at arm’s length when you can’t cope with them. It is a shield and a second home.


Related articles:

What does it mean to integrate in a different country?

18 years living in Vienna…some thoughts on a very special anniversary

Yorkshire words and phrases I still use after 19 years living abroad


Photo: margaritaaylita on Envato Elements