6 Strange “Side Effects” of Being Fluent in Another Language

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Winnie, lost in his thoughts...

Winnie, lost in his thoughts…

Most people around me in Canada speak at least two languages fluently, typically English or French plus their mother tongue. This skill is so common in the immigrant community that I tend to forget it is indeed… a skill. 

Think about it: mastering one language is already, in itself, one of the greatest human achievements. The ability to pass down information, to form identities, to develop complex relationships, to analyze the world around us, relies on language. Now imagine doing that with several sets of complex systems of communications that each require different words, grammar rules, etc. Cool, eh?

Funny enough, I noticed a few strange side effects of speaking several languages fluently…

You become the de facto translation resource

Depending on the language combination you speak, you can be sure that at one point, someone will ask you to translate something. Hebrew, Japanese or Chinese speakers can be asked for input on new tattoos (mostly to avoid this or this), English speakers can be required to translate resumes or song lyrics, Italian is the language of love you need to email your crush from Roma, etc. Hell, maybe Swedish speakers are solicited for the dreaded IKEA furniture assembly chore?!

At my university in France, students from the Arabic language department were often contacted by the police to help out with investigations or stand by during questioning—law enforcement had very little success enrolling them, though, since the trend was more “Silk Road, dreadlocks and ganja” than “law and order”!

As for me, I’m often asked to decipher Korean or Japanese characters on chopsticks or tea cups. Which I would totally do if, you know, I spoke either of these two languages (remember, not everything Asian-looking is Chinese!)

You get lost in translation

Humans are not computers, and even if you are fluent in two or more languages, there are always areas where you are more comfortable in one language than another… or concepts for which there is no perfect translation. For example, when we talk about Chinese food, Feng and I use Chinese words because it makes more sense to say “jiaozi” than “dumpling filled with chives and ground meat”, which is an approximate translation in the first place.

It’s more natural for me to write business emails in English because this is the work language I’ve been using for the past ten years. However, I’d rather analyze literature in French because this is what I learned at school. Bottom line is, your brain isn’t a two-column chart for which every word in language A has a match in language B.

You can no longer trust any media

Media from all around the world don’t necessarily tell the same story and it can be very enlightening to read about the same event in two different languages. Viewpoints can be miles apart, even between countries that are technically in the same political camp.

It also becomes hard to take a side because… well, there are always two sides to a story. Country A claims this, country B claims that, and the truth lies somewhere in between, which is something you are very aware of since you know that language can be tweaked easily to fit a purpose.

People can be strangely unappreciative  of your skills

“You’re so lucky to speak several languages!” is a comment that can be annoying at times. I mean, you don’t go around telling people “my, you’re so lucky to be a lawyer!” or “you’re so fortunate to be a carpenter!”—these are skills you put time and effort into acquiring, there is no “luck” factor.

Even kids growing up in a bilingual environment have to make a conscious effort to master languages. I can see it with Mark, there is no fairy with magic wand who turns kids into bilingual geniuses. You do have to make a conscious effort to constantly practice the language(s) you speak, acquire new vocabulary, keep up with idioms and neologisms, etc.

And don’t even get me started on “oh, everybody speaks English, it’s an easy language to learn!” Learning basic English is, admittedly, easier than mastering a few words in Polish. But truly mastering it is another story.

Sometime, understanding song lyrics is the best way to hate a band

I still can’t believe I spent the summer of 1994 singing “don’t want a short dick man“. My only excuse? It was the hit of the summer and no, at 11 years old I had no idea what it meant—and presumably most French didn’t either because I clearly remember straight guys singing along.

You doubt of your own language skills while non-fluent people flaunt their own

It’s funny: most people I know who are truly fluent in two or more languages often claim they aren’t, while those who spend a month abroad proudly claim they become fluent during their trip. The only explanation I can give is that the more you practice a language, immersed in a culture, the more you realize what being “fluent” means and how much it encompasses. On the other hand, getting to a functional level where locals understand you isn’t so difficult, and it can make you believe you truly master a language.

So, did you notice any of these side effects as well?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

30 Comments

  1. Hi Zhu,

    Sometimes it is hard to understand a song even if it is in your native language. The ZZ Top song “Sharp Dressed Man” sounds like “Jive Assed Man”. I went a whole year thinking that another song was saying “now that the poisoned summer has gone” and not “now that the boys of summer have gone”.

    • Oh yes! There are lists of “misheard lyrics” online, they are quite hilarious. I spent my teenage years trying to understand what Cobain was screaming about…

  2. Tiens je n’arrive pas a me souvenir de cette chanson. Par contre ma mere nous interdisait de chanter “Vas-y Francky c’est bon” alors que c’etait super populaire (j’etaias en primaire, donc on ne savait pas haha)
    And since I started writing in French: I totally start in one language and realize mid-way it’s the wrong one. Especially these days since I am blogging in French and reading more stuff in French (I was starting to turn into J-C Van Dam haha)
    It’s weird bcse I also did some councelling in English, and somehow it’s easier for me to talk about all the stuff I went through in a different language :/
    And yes, I absolutely am better at certain things in English and others in French. For instance I learned to fix computers in English, so that’s the language I think in when it comes to IT…

    • I hear you, for anything computer-related, I’m way more comfortable in English. For other areas, it really depends what language you operate in in the first place. For a long time, my cooking vocabulary was very French, but after embracing world food and local options, I’m using “cups” as measurements for instance.

      J’ai un problème avec Frankie Vincent, je le trouve tellement… odieux comme mec! Oui, je me souviens qu’il était super populaire, mais putain, les paroles et les clips quoi :-/

      • On est d’accord, il est odieux! Mais en court de recre tout le monde chantait cette chanson lol Maintenant je l’ai en tete :/
        For cooking, one I got used to cups I rolled with it. I still sue recipes from both sides of the Atlantic though. And cups are so much easier to deal with!
        It’s funny though because I had to re-learn a bunch of stuff since they don’t call things the same in Scotland….

        • J’ai sa chanson dans la tête aussi maintenant 😆

          Food terminology is so different from a country to another, and even from a region to another. Crazy.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    I am far for being fluent in English. I can’t read it, but I write randomly arranged words in comments section. And sometimes, it is spot on.

  4. Part of my job consists in translating from english to french some articles, and there are always some university names, for example, that I’m just unable to translate because they have no translation in french. I used to write them in the original language, in italics. Anyway, every laywer (the people I wrote for) is able to read english here in Qc. But for me it’s far from just a luck, it’s a real skill. A skill that I wish I had developed a bit more… Billie is going to star english next year, she will follow six months in french, and six months in english.

    • Oh, that’s a cool program for Billie! Forgive my ignorance, but I had no idea English program were… ahem, accepted in Quebec.

      C’est chiant les noms des universités et des organismes. Traduire, pas traduire… je me fie souvent à Termium.

  5. Je ne connais pas, est-ce un support de traduction? J’utilise souvent linguee pour me donner des idées. Elle est dans une garderie où il y a immersion partielle puis totale la dernière année avant le primaire. Ensuite comme nous sommes francophones elle devra aller dans le système francophone, mais il y a des écoles anglophones également, ainsi que des universités et des programmes d’études sup anglophones.

    • Linguee is super aussi. Termium, c’est la base de données de traduction officielle du Gouvernement du Canada. C’est en accès libre, comme un dico en ligne. C’est super pour les acronymes obscures, le vocabulaire spécialisé, etc. Je te le conseille!

      C’est super l’immersion! Je savais qu’il y avait un système anglophone, mais que les conditions pour y aller étaient limitées pour des francophones.

  6. Chiruza Canadiense on

    You know when you kill yoursel to learn both English and French before moving to Canada, and once here you start looking for work and they tell you that your main asset is that you speak…..Spanish ? FML ! xD

    • That’s good, isn’t it? I mean, it wouldn’t be a valuable skill if you didn’t speak either of he two official languages…

      • Chiruza Canadiense on

        It’s weird when someone tells you that what makes a difference in you is that you speak Spanish….I mean, how about my university degree ? My French skills ? The 8+ years of experience ? Isn’t that as important (or actually, more important) than speaking Spanish actually ?

        I find it weird, I don’t know…..

        • I think they meant it’s an added skill, not your one and only skill. I speak Mandarin but that alone can’t land me a job, I would also need to be a good business person, for instance. Just like the mere fact I speak French and English is irrelevant, you need other skills too.

      • Hihihihi
        Ceci dit j’étais obligée d’employer des expressions québécoises, c’est normal pour se faire comprendre rapidement. Mais je n’allais pas jusqu’aux anglicismes qui faisaient saigner mes oreilles “prendre une marche”, etc

        • Pour moi, prendre une marche ressemble bien trop à “se prendre une marche”, se casser la gueule, quoi. Je trouvais les Québécois terriblement maladroit au début quand j’entendais ça dans les conversations 😆

  7. In Malaysia the Chinese community is encouraged to go to Chinese school to keep their mother tongue. All these years in Malaysia I have been thinking that my mother tongue is Mandarin. But when I live abroad, people told me that my mother tongue should be Hokkien (a dialect we speak at home). And when I’m in France, some Chinese from China or from Taiwan would ask me “Where did you learn Chinese”, “your Chinese is not bad”… I don’t know how to reply, as I always thought that Chinese was my mother tongue. What am I supposed to think if someone comments that I speak my mother tongue “not bad”?

    Anyway, now that I get to speak Mandarin with people outside of Malaysia, I realized that I make a lot of mistakes in prononciation, and we don’t use the same word for many things, and I conclude that I do not speak nor write good Mandarin / English / French / Malay. Because, mastering a language is hard.

    • Mandarin is so hard, especially because speaking and reading/writing are two different things. On top of that, you have multiple dialects being spoken! It’s a language you definitely have to learn and practice actively if you want to master it.

      Do you find people to speak Mandarin with in France? Most Chinese in Nantes speak Wenzhou hua or Teochew.

  8. Completely agree !!
    It takes me awhile to find my words in French even tough I am fluent in French ! This is what happen when you live abroad for a long time.

  9. I remember when I first moved to the Niagara region (Ontario) from Montreal: I had studied in English in college and university during 3 years, had had fantastic grades in English (sometimes better than my English natives counterparts!), then taught Music in English and had summer jobs where my English was put to good use during 2 years prior to the move. I clearly thought I was fluent, and to some extent I was.

    What I didn’t realize at that time is that in Montreal most people, even non-bilinguals, had a fairly decent notion of both languages so that whenever I didn’t know a word or expression in English I could briefly switch back to French (for that word or sentence) and I would be understood. Or if my pronunciation was wrong in English, nobody would tell me because they would understand what I meant. That crutch didn’t work in Ontario anymore. Whenever my pronunciation in English wasn’t right, I simply wouldn’t be understood! Suddenly there was another learning curve in front of me, one I thought was already behind me…

    So yeah, I totally agree with you… When people claim they are fluent in a language after a couple of months (or weeks!) abroad, I’m skeptical as well. The learning curve is steep! 🙂

    • Oh yes, you get it! Your language skills always amaze me, I had NO idea what your mother tongue was at first, based on your writing on Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.

      The learning curve is steep, and language is also very cultural. So you really need to understand the culture as well to get the lingo out of context.

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