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?

3 thoughts on “Beware of Bilingualism…

  1. Eolia Disler says:

    ahah! #1 is so true! I “love” how people think no ones understand them when they are mean to someone, who doesn’t understand their language… Or when they try to speak with us “because we re foreigners”. The other day, 3 young Germans were talking in the U-Bahn about the issue with terrorism, especially what happened in France. They had heard me talking to my girl in French, and they were eyeing me in a way “I wonder what she thinks about that subject”. I totally sat on the empty chair beside them and started to talk about terrorism in all its shapes and not confuding someone’s spiritual journey to feel nearer form the divine with these people who are blinded with power, fear and hate. It was in a broken German, but they were happy to dscuss a topic with me who is from a different country.
    Bilingualism is such a wonderful way to communicate with more people!

  2. kerrylockyer says:

    Hi Eowyn I follow your blogs with interest always but wonder have you ever written anything g regarding use of iPads in teaching EAL OR other languages! I am trying to put together an argument for purchasing them for use in the department. Am keen to hear advantages and also perhaps visit schools using them effectively……… Any ideas for me?

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