The word I was looking for was “heatwave”. Sometimes a word appears to me in a different language — one that is not my mother tongue. I quickly realised I am not the only one. What we are experiencing is a pandemic of bilingualism — part infectious disease and part hereditary burden — passed on from parents to sons and daughters. As inherited afflictions go, it could be worse.
She was Italian and he was Icelandic. They met in a place where their two tongues shared nothing in common. Foreigners in a foreign and strange land. Scotland. Glasgow to be exact. They had never been that far away from home before.
“She is the love of my life”. He said this to me, not as any grand proclamation, but as a simple matter-of-fact statement. Almost as mundane and run-of-the-mill as looking out of the window and saying cold water is falling from the skies. What was slightly remarkable about this statement was that it was in two different languages. This was not the first time it happened to him. In fact, language switching is omnipresent in bilingual individuals. It is casual, easy, but most of all — it makes complete sense. It is almost poetic to witness the flexible dexterity involved. At its most standard it is a switch triggered by a particular situation or topic. Searching for that word to best describe unseasonal weather for example. At its most beautiful the switch is unintended and the user is unaware of it. A lot like the love he proclaimed.
For those with “two tongues”, language switching is fundamental and essential. It goes beyond simple meanings of words and speaking more towards the sense of a word. The french have no word for awkward. The word they use doesn’t quite cover all the bases. It means the same thing but doesn’t quite have the same sense.
It would be easy to think of switching language as a sign of poor integration into a foreign culture. Indeed, we once did. When you don’t have a proper grasp of a language it is easy to slip back into your mother tongue. More and more we came to realise the two-way language street exists. When the switch goes the other way, it is more of an indication of a more competent linguistic experience.
The first time he awoke from a dream he did not understand was the first time he dreamed in another language. A language that he was far from fluent in. The dream felt like a memory. But the colours of an old photograph were not present — no sepia tint, not even the highly digitized instagram world we now live in. No, it was a memory from a different language. Perhaps someone else’s memory since he did not understand it. It was about her. She spoke in her language. He did not understand it. Then he also spoke in her language. Within the dream he understood the words coming out of his mouth. In reality, he did not understand the varia of mainour on his lips — stolen out of the ether and given form within the dream.
He would later go on to explain the dream as foreboding. Predictive of a future he did not know about yet. Is language is the dress of thought, or is thought the dress of language? An age old question dating back to when we first started to think about this problem. No less relevant today as it was then.
We don’t yet have all the answers for the mix of languages and translations in our heads, and how they arrive at our lips. At the beginning the feeling is a little bit like being caught in between two worlds. Eventually it embraces you and you inhabit both worlds.
One day, she told him that he was unique. In his language it didn’t quite mean the same as hers. The same way it would have if he had told her that she was spontaneous.
It is important to consider how bilinguals switch languages. The social scientists are currently doing their best to come up with a picture that doesn’t look as complicated as the mix of languages themselves. The switching triggers are often different each time and context plays a big part. It is not to show-off, instead it comes from a need for expression. There is the intended switch and the unintended. When the concepts are far, difficult to describe, another language might be more appropriate. Abstract or ambiguous types of concepts might not be mapped directly onto corresponding words. What is the French for the phrase “double entendre”?
“You are very banal” she said to him in english. He did not know what this meant, perhaps she meant normal, but to him this was an insult. Wars between great nations had been started with less.
Over the years they picked up more and more of each other’s mother language. When I was around he spoke to her in English. Any language switch is embedded in a speciﬁc social context. I was a well-documented social trigger for language switching. Perhaps the most basic of all triggers — politeness. Observing them we covered the whole spectrum of linguistic factors — language proﬁciency, word semantics, and word similarity.
Their bilingualism is not unique. There are many of them, us. Often it is this that one thing that brings them together. That search for someone else that also has difficulty inhabiting the same shoes we are currently trying to fit into. Similarities divide and mutual differences come together. When they talk it is a learning process. We switch at will, perhaps more intentionally, finding the words and concepts that we have found to mean more to us in this language than our own. And revelling in the fact that others have found something similar.
The balance of languages in your head is a good indicator for the frequency of switching. The more balanced the more we tend to feel at ease to use both. A simple test for this is to write down how many words you know that start with the letter F in all the languages you know.
Language switching is a new form of shibboleth. At the turn of the millenium 1 in 4 Americans could speak a second language. In Australia, that number is now at 20% of all households censused. Numbers that are far from aneamic considering the traditionally monolingual culture of their citizens.
We once thought teaching children at an early age more than one language was detrimental and confusing. We now encourage multiple tongues and document all the ways it will be beneficial to your newborn. It has almost become a stamp of approval. A badge to wear proudly on your sleeve.
Even small children show language switching abilities and adapt their language to the context and who they are speaking to. It may even be easier and more economical in general to mix languages than to keep languages separate. Bilingual babies learn very quickly that objects and events in their world have two names. It is well documented the ease at which young children pick up a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays.
In the end, Italian girl and Icelandic boy had two girls of Spanish nationality. Multiplying and spreading like a disease, another language is added to the mix. A perfect metaphor for progress.
Image — source