There’s an ongoing debate about the definition of bilingualism. Some argue that one must have been exposed to two languages from birth to be considered bilingual, while others maintain that a person of any age can become bilingual by mastering a second language. Definitions aside, when one considers that it’s harder to learn a second language as an adult, people with two mother tongues clearly have an advantage.
For those of us raised with only one language at home, there was an obvious reason to envy our bilingual friends during childhood: by the time the rest of us started learning a second language, they were already fluent in two! Oh, how we envied them!
But are there any drawbacks to being bilingual? We talked to some of our colleagues at Babbel who grew up speaking two languages to discover if there are any negatives to being bilingual.
1. I can’t express myself in only one language
“German is my default language, but my mother is American, and ever since I was little she’s insisted that I only speak English with her. Whenever I do try to talk to her in German she pretends not to understand or puts on such a horrendous accent that I switch to English reflexively. To be fair, I don’t mind speaking English with her… except when we argue. My emotions come out in German, not English. So when I argue with her, in English of course, I am always at a disadvantage. Not only does she always win the arguments, she corrects my English! Can you think of anything more annoying?”
2. I make up words and expressions
“I’m never sure whether certain words and expressions exist in both languages I speak. Sometimes I translate idioms that don’t make sense in the other language. If I tell my Italian cousins that something was a fetta di torta (piece of cake) they just look at me like I’m insane.”
3. I’m always the stranger
“When you’re bilingual, the French claim they detect a German accent when you speak French, but the Germans won’t claim you either, insisting you’re French. And somehow, you are always an expert on the ‘other’ culture. So, when your teutonic friends discuss French New Wave cinema, you will be asked for your expertise on the topic, even if you’ve never seen one film by Godard. Conversely, if the topic of discussion among your French friends is Hegelian idealism or the influence of Marxist economic theory on … well, you understand. ”
4. People ask me a lot of stupid questions
In which language do you dream/swear/think? Do you ever get confused? If you could only speak one language, which one would you choose?
“Monolinguals treat me like some kind of scientific test subject; they ask me to say things in this or that language, to simultaneously translate foreign films, they ask (a bit too often) whether I ever get confused… All they are missing are the lab coats and clipboards.”
5. I love the Olympics and the World Cup, but I have no idea which team to root for!
“Being bilingual means belonging to two different cultures, and being halfway between one country and another. This is absolutely not a problem… unless the national teams of your two countries clash in the final of the World Cup. Now that is a problem! ”
OK, so the pet peeves of bilinguals are not that bad. In fact, these minor disadvantages are heavily outweighed by the very cool benefit of using more than one language in your daily life.
In the following video, some aspiring polyglots discuss how they came to learn languages later in life, and whether or not they consider themselves to be bilingual. It turns out it’s not necessarily such an easy label to attach to oneself.