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

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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