Posted in Of Culturel

Of Being Bilingual

There continues to be research linking being bilingual – ability to speak, at least, two languages, with being more intelligent. I can’t share the scientific info with you but, in plain words, the more languages you learn, the smarter you’re going to be. If you already know two or more languages, you’re smarter than those who don’t. Okay, that maybe oversimplifying or falsely assuming things, but I think we can all agree, knowing multiple languages makes you smart. At least, when it comes to communicating in those languages.

I was raised tri-lingual. I grew up knowing English, Bengali and Hindi, and can comprehend a few other languages close to these in some way or another. Learning new vocabulary, in any language, is a passion of mine. I feel language is a gateway to a whole new culture, and your key to understanding it. A language is not only a medium of communication, but also the history and psychology of the people who speak it. Max Mueller said that German is the best language for doing Philosophy. Bengali is a highly poetic language, capable of expressing complex emotions accurately. Napoleon said, obviously in a derogatory sense, that England is a nation of shopkeepers. There is some truth to it, in the sense that English is a very pragmatic and economic language. No language is better at getting to the truth of the matter than English. French, as has been long believed, is the language of love. It certainly makes even the most mundane ideas sound sexy.

'Yes, I am bilingual. I speak English and Computerese.'
Bilingual Cartoon

Of course, most of the above are extremely biased assumptions, however popular. You can do love, poetry, business and philosophy in any language. These assumptions are often made by multi-linguists, who think differently in different languages, as you have to. There are multi-linguists who don’t, especially if they learn their second or third language in later life and not as children. If you learn them as children, they’re naturalized to you. You get into a different mode when you shift to a different language. Some people change their voices, expressions, even pronounce sounds they can’t in other languages. Because children mainly learn through mimicry, they’re able to inhabit the character of that other language more authentically.

Not that there is an authentic way of doing language. At most, people of your own country or community would expect you to do their language in a certain way. Purist notions often come with it; a language is easily politicized. But, most of all, language is a skill. The more you know, the better you’ll comprehend the world around you. Much is lost in translation or ignorance otherwise. And a new language, even a new word, can be a delicious thing.

Being a practising multi-lingual, however, requires or acquires, a different sort of intelligence. This happens frequently in a country like India, where so many languages are spoken, that any of them rarely get used exclusively in any place. Apart from very formal occasions, most of us use a cocktail language of our own, and it requires a lot of muscular effort, brainwise. Comprehension is easy, spontaneous expression can get tricky. The right word can come to you in another language, but saying it in this one results in embarrassment. And these dialectic gymnastics go on regularly. You’d have to be smart, just to get on in life.

'I'm glad I wasn't born in France. My French is terrible.'
Bilingual Cartoon

Just as a language is a living, breathing thing susceptible to growth, change and decay, so is your skill in it. I cannot say I am an expert in any of the three languages I’ve known all my life. My grammar can get shaky, the meaning of some word might elude me, reading a piece in it might take time, writing it might be a nightmare. Like any other skill, you only stay good if you use it well. And the one you use well is often the one which chose you. It might not be the language spoken by the majority of where you live. But, it will be the language you think your thoughts in. The one you express yourself in, even if that expression can’t go further than yourself. This is why some people never forget their language, even after spending years in someplace else where they don’t get to use it.

I’ve been watching the food and travel videos of popular blogger Mark Wiens from, where I’ve discovered something else that’s interesting. He’s an American with a Chinese mother from America, but he grew up in Kenya, France, Congo and the US (and perhaps other places!) and now, travels for a living. His wife is from Thailand, and he seems to converse with her in the Thai language. He adjusts his accent, almost mimicking the local accent, depending on where he is travelling, especially while pronouncing names of foods and places. The interesting part is, sometimes he seems to lose his regular American accent, to speak English with the accent of the place he’s in. Acclimatising your natural accent according to your context is not something I’ve come across frequently. Is it also a sign of intelligence, where you’re blending into the local at the level of suppressing what’s part of your identity?

"...and I'm proficient in two languages ? English and text messaging."
Bilingual Cartoon

A language is, at best, a key to a culture, and I’m glad to possess three. I’m always on the hunt for adding more keys to my chain, because it can help me unlock the world, leading to a more compassionate understanding of it. In my post Of Accents, I wrote about the problems being too focused on accents may cause. With language, however, no matter how badly you communicate in it, you’re always that much ahead in understanding yourself and others. And that, if you ask me, is kinda the point of life.

What languages do you know or speak? Are there any you would like to learn? Share any interesting, language-related stories you might have in the comments below!



Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

20 thoughts on “Of Being Bilingual

  1. There is a lot of complexity in languages which probably triggers different parts of the brain. But for us in Singapore, it is more of appreciating your own mother tongue that we have to learn it, while English is a common language used across all races and cultures.

    1. Certainly. One of studies I read said that new synapses or nerve pathways are formed in your brain if you learn or use different languages, especially if you jump from one to another regularly, which happens with bilinguals. I guess it keeps your brain sharp, which learning new skills do anyway.

      Thank you for reading and sharing! Hope things are well in Singapore!☺

  2. Picking up accents to blend is a natural phenomenon. It also puts the locals at ease and makes them more likely to respond favorably towards you.

    I used to work as a hostess at a country restaurant and my southern twang, which rarely even exists, was in full swing.

    Talking ‘proper’ American English was seen as snooty and elitist and would mark me as an outsider. I wanted to blend and I didn’t want anyone to think I thought less of them.

    1. Yes, that does seem logical. What was strange about Mark Wiens is that he spoke in that localized, accented English into the camera, to his viewers. Maybe, that’s just a remnant of how he had been speaking before. Your accent can change if you’re not in your native place for a while!

  3. হাই! (Google translate tells me this is ‘Hi!’ in Bengali!) I’m bilingual so far (English/French), I’d like to learn to say a few key phrases in a bunch of languages though. Nice post!

    1. Uh, that would just be “Hi” spelt in Bengali but I appreciate the interest! In Bengali, we’re more used to saying the full how are you, i.e. “Kemon accho?” A lot of English words are regularly used though, especially awesome, heavy (to mean great or wonderful and not actually heavy!), havoc etc. Two words to impress the next Bengali you meet (who will shed tears in delight, feed you Bengali sweets, have a long, intellectual conversation with you, and teach you about ten more words if you use just one. Yes, that’s the way we are!):

      Adda: A long chat, usually intellectual but can include anything and any number of people. Leisurely, usually includes tea and snacks, but can turn into heated debates.

      Byapok: Bengali word for awesome, wonderful etc. Used in casual conversation, sure to establish instant friendship.

      I’d say watching films is one of the best ways of picking up languages. I just got an Amazon video subscription and have been watching one of most iconic Bollywood films, abbreviated as DDLJ. It’s on Netflix too, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it already!

      1. It’s so weird imagining a Canadian saying that! Especially from a guy, because it’s like a “I’m down with the homies” kind of expression among men here. Do let me know if you try those words next time you meet a Bengali! It would be “daroon” (another word for wonderful)!

  4. I speak Filipino, English and Sarcasm.. does that count? LOL!

    As bilingual, I have to be conscious of the language I’m currently using. There are times when I interchange my native language with English or vice versa.

    1. Lol, Sarcasm is definitely a language in my book! At times, it may seem too foreign to some!

      I have noticed too, especially at my job where I have to juggle multiple languages, that I have to be very conscious and careful. Which is very difficult for me, as I speak very fast!

  5. This actually reminds me of something that I experienced once. I was watching a movie with the actress Charlize Theron. She is originally from South Africa and in the movie there is one scene where she speaks Afrikaans. The rest of it is in English, as would be expected of a normal Hollywood movie. The afrikaans caught me so off guard that it sounded like a weird foreign language to me, even though it’s my mother tongue. It sounded like a cross between Flemish and dutch. I had to rewind it and listen to it again to understand it. It was strange hearing it the way foreigners would hear it. I suppose my brain wasn’t expecting it and couldn’t interpret it when it came so unexpectedly. I speak both languages fluently though and also mix them sometimes.
    Maar ek reken dis nou genoeg. Totsiens! (But I reckon that’s enough now. Goodbye!)

    1. Goeie dag. I hope that is correct lol!

      I do know that about Charlize Theron. What I always found interesting about her is how she learnt English as an adult and speaks it with a flawless American accent.

      Thank you for reading and sharing. Happy New Year!

  6. Hi Of Opinions,

    Interesting article.
    I brought my two daughters up bilingually in Spanish and English.

    Modern research proves that bilingualism, and so trilingualism , etc., is highly beneficial for delaying the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Bring on more languages please!

    Regards. Marie.

    1. Yes, I’ve read that too! Apparently new nerve pathways are formed in the brain which hels in memory. Definitely bring on more languages! I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish too!

      1. Hi, I’m teaching Spanish to English expats here in the south of Spain , if you’d like to join our classes! (Just kidding! 😂) But seriously, I’m writing about those lessons on my site. They could help you get started…Regards .Marie.

      2. I will definitely check it out! I’ve always wanted to learn, though what little I understand comes from Latin world music hits (Shakira and the like) and movies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s