The realities of bilingualism in the 21st century (1.0)

As a child, I loved hearing the story of my parents meeting. While both of them sat alone in a bar in Piccadilly Circus, their eyes met and they felt a spark. Gathering his confidence, my father approached my mother. Something about her was different, he thought, and with a mixture of shock and interest he listened to her reply to his awful pick-up line in broken, accented English. Unbeknownst to them, this chance encounter would begin a relationship that would span two continents, two cultures and two ways of life. They would have two children, who would be raised speaking English with their father and their mother’s native language with her. This decision was not conscious, but rather arose because each parent found it natural to speak to their children in their own language.

As a young child, I remember my confusion when I realised that my English friends could not understand my mother when she spoke to us in her native language. I just heard her speak to me, and thought that she spoke to us as any mother speaks to her child. It was not long though, before I realised just how contentious and political an issue language can be. My father, who always admitted that he had no gift for learning languages, still to this day has only a limited understanding of my mother’s native tongue, and practically no ability to speak it. As an adult, I am now aware of the tension at the kitchen table when my father interrupts my mother speaking to ask her to speak in English, as he cannot keep up with her fast-paced language. She sighs, as she has done for years, but agrees. In that sigh, I hear her frustration at his inability to make this sacrifice for her, in light of the many sacrifices she has made for him. Leaving her family and her friends and the only home she has ever known, in order to live halfway across the world in a country with a different language and different cultural norms, and only a small community of people from her native country, terrified her. And, perhaps most painfully, she did this with the knowledge that her children will, in all likelihood, never understand or relate to her culture or language the way they will to British culture.

Now, I say with some regret that I am aware of how much English has taken the forefront in my mind, alongside the cultural norms that I associate with that language. I find myself desperately grasping at words in my mother’s native language, as if they are wisps of smoke that could fly away if I do not concentrate enough on them. I have spent my life trying to master it, and yet increasingly I feel like the words become stuck in my throat whenever I try to utter them. I hate seeing my mother wince when I stutter over a word, or seeing my cousins laugh whilst I desperately search my brains for the right word.

For a period of my life, I hated my mother’s native tongue, as it served as a constant reminder of the divide between me and half of my heritage. Ironically, those struggles are reflected back to me in my mum’s relationship with English. I grew up hearing her relate to me the lack of confidence she feels when speaking in English around native English speakers, which I, with some pain, realised might also include me. I used to watch with interest the change I saw in her personality as she swapped from her native language into English, with the former her being much more confident and outgoing, whilst the other is much more subdued. Many studies have examined the link between bilingualism and personality. When asked in a survey by linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko, two thirds of over 1000 bilinguals reported that they felt like a different person when they spoke different languages (according to a study between 2001 and 2003). Whether this is a result of different cultural norms, which manifest themselves in the language associated with that culture, or simply because of different levels of confidence in each language, seems unclear to me.

What is clear, however, is that language is never just language. It is your way of framing your experiences and relating to the world around you, as well as the means by which we forge connections with others. As the language of my mother and my childhood slips away from me with age, I regret that she may now see me as more British than ever, and even less a part of her cultural heritage.

The nature of my bilingual upbringing has often left me wondering where I belong in the world. My parents seem to hold the incompatible idea that I should feel fully British, an idea they have reinforced throughout my life, whilst also expecting me to maintain contact with my mother’s heritage and extended family in her native country. For my mother, my proficiency in her native language has always been an important marker of this connection. However, just as English has superseded that language in my mind, I feel that my Britishness has come to the forefront of my identity. Though I will never lose my love for my mother’s native country, I now realise that part of my identity will inevitably weaken as I grow older in England, a fact which we both have to come to terms with.

Image: Kat Grigg on Flickr 

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