Beware of bilingualism…

I get asked, a lot, to name some “negative” aspects of bilingualism. This happens in casual conversation, in seminars, in training sessions and in almost every situation where I am talking about the positive aspects of bilingualism. My standard answer is that there are no negative consequences when bilingualism is successful. That is not to say that there are *never* negative consequences, but these have to do with unsuccessful bilingualism, or bilingualism that was attempted but not maintained. But people persist, because over the years all kinds of stories have circulated about how damaging bilingualism can be to children.
So, in the spirit of honesty, I would like to share these “pitfalls” of bilingualism that I have experienced personally or witnessed.

1. Thinking that nobody can understand you. This one happens a lot – people who speak a minority language operate under the misguided belief that nobody around them can understand them. So they talk about things that ought not to be talked about in public, or in front of certain people. This one has happened to me a lot – I’ve been a secret witness to a (Dutch) conversation about how I am not tall enough to be an adult. I’ve heard people speaking in French, insulting their English hosts (in Oxford). I’ve heard a child tell his parent that I should go home because I am a foreigner and should speak Dutch (I was speaking French to my son) – that one I did not let pass and told him, in Dutch, that sometimes “foreigners” can speak more than one language…
So the moral is, don’t make the mistake of believing that nobody can understand your secret language… bilinguals are everywhere and they don’t wear a helpful sign.

2. You can’t always find the word in the language that you want. We all have expressions or words that we like better in one of our languages, and we really want to be able to use those words. So it would be nice if everyone around was bilingual too, in the same languages! Or we could just all teach those great words and phrases to our nearest and dearest, and spread the bilingualism bug that way.

3. People look at you suspiciously in public. Somehow, hearing people speak in a different language provokes a knee-jerk reaction that “They must be talking about me!”. I don’t know why this is (possibly to do with point #1, above…) but some people feel threatened by being around a conversation they can not understand. I find this assumption of conversational subject a bit odd though – surely there are many other things to talk about that don’t include randomly discussing strangers behind their backs (or in front of their faces). I often wonder if monolinguals are more prone to this assumption than bilinguals, but I have no evidence of this.

So, those are some pitfalls of bilingualism in my world… care to share any of your own?

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2 responses

  1. I hate the way people in shops get confused and don’t know what language to speak when I speak to them in Dutch and then to my children in English. It’s even worse when I speak to my children in English and they then reply in Dutch. Confusion all around!

    Before I could speak Dutch I was once on the London Underground with my husband when 2 Dutch girls sitting near us had a very loud and graphic conversation about sex. When we were getting off my husband said something to them in Dutch. They just laughed. They could have cared less that he understood their whole conversation!

  2. The European Mama | Reply

    Yes, I get people ask me: “what language do you speak?” as if it was any of their business. I also think that the “negative” consequences of bilingualism is the mix of cultures that are “attached” to these languages.. It makes decision making very difficult and I often find myself arguing the other side in discussions just because I want to show people that there is a totally different point of view on the discussion that they should consider. Or that it could make you feel superior (I speak X languages, what’s your superpower?) and it will give you yet another thing to boast about when talking about your children. (your child can count to 10? Cool. Mine can do it in three languages) and so other moms will forever hate you :D Also, it’s hard work and who wants more hard work on top of raising children? I could go on, but you’re right, it’s quite hard to find negative points.

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