The Gap Life Diaries | The ugly truth of bilingualism
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The ugly truth of bilingualism

Being fluent in another language is usually pretty sweet. You don’t get ripped off by taxi drivers, you can pretend to be local when you can’t be bothered to answer pesky questions like “So, you seriously came to Italy to work?”, and of course you can talk about people without them knowing… but be careful with that last one.

The disadvantage of bilingualism is that as you improve your skills in one language, your brain, for some unknown and irritating reason, decides that it can just go ahead and delete some things from other ones.

Before my Gap Life, it actually used to quite annoy me when bilingual people would make mistakes in English, or say that they’d forgotten a word in their native language. Surely this was just a really over the top way to show off?

And then I moved to Italy and unlearned English.

Most of the time, it doesn’t matter when a word won’t come to me in one language – at least at work, I can chuck in a word from time to time and almost everyone gets what I mean, and my English speaking friends all speak Italian too, so when the Italian word comes to mind first, they understand. But when I speak to friends back home or have to talk to my English-speaking client, sometimes my brain, all proud of itself, says “Ta-da! I found the word you wanted!”, and it is the right word, but it’s in the wrong language. I then end up sounding really dim as I have to use 25 words to explain my way around one really simple one.

Here are some more examples of how Italian has spelled the end for my once-decent English:

The words preservative and conservative are pretty hard to confuse, right? How about when I tell you that the Italian words conservativo/conservante mean preservative, and that preservativo means condom? Now imagine the confusion when I’m speaking to someone and tell them, in English, that [insert food here] is full of conservatives or worse, in Italian, that it’s full of condoms. Not so smooth. And there are plenty more false friends where those came from.

Italianisms often slip into my sentences without me realising, because some of them almost make sense in English, even though they’re totally wrong. In my case, “in reality” has substituted the word “actually”, thanks to the Italian translation of “in realtà” and I sometimes end up saying “actually” when I mean “currently” thanks to the Italian for “currently”, which is “attualmente”. Are you confused yet? Because I certainly am. “On a level of” has also replaced “in terms of” thanks to “al livello di..”, and after frequently using the phrase “in che senso?” in Italian, “In what sense?” now replaces “what do you mean?”. It’s a confusing place, my brain.

Sometimes, the problem is that Italian is more concise than English, so some things are just easier when they’re Italianised. Take “stendere”. Technically, this verb means to stretch out, but is also used to mean to hang out the clothes to dry. In my house, the phrase “I have to hang out my clothes to dry” has become, in our strange hybrid language, “I have to stend”. It’s just so much easier. Likewise, “to say hello to someone” is simply “salutare”, which obviously results in me “saluting” a lot of people.

In Italian, the way something is written is exactly the way it’s pronounced – just read every letter and remember what certain letter combinations always sound like and hey presto, you can read like a native! This is great when you need to read something in Italian, but less great when you start reading something “in Italian” just to realise half way through that the word is actually in English and that you’ve just pronounced the word “Icelandic” as “Ee-che-landic”.

Your syntax also starts to get really weird when you’re used to communicating in your non-native language every day. “You’re going to the party, right?” becomes “You’ll go to the party, no?”, and “Are you on your way?” turns into “You’re arriving?”.

The thing is, you only really know you’ve hit linguistic rock bottom when your Italian friends laugh at your English mistakes, and your English friends stare at you like you’re a foreigner when you speak to them. And by that point, it’s too late.

The moral of this story is: it’s great learning foreign languages…just don’t expect to be any good at English by the end of it.

1Comment
  • Anja Ben
    Posted at 20:57h, 01 March

    I just can’t stop reading your blog Emma! I really like the balance between travel stories and personal stories (for me, it’s hard to switch to personal stories as I always think: Is my personal life of any interest to anyone?). As for bilingualism, I’ve always thought as well that “forgetting” words in your native language was just a way of showing off, but then… I learned German and English at school, but also privately… I studied Spanish at the University. And then I started learning Italian last semester in an Italian language school.
    I write my blog in English, and read a lot in English, I have to use German and Italian for my work…. and eventhough I live in my home country, it happens to me a lot that I cannot remember a Croatian word for something, and then I just say it in English or German. There are a lot of English words entering Croatian- thanks to internet, media, social networks, technology… And the media in Croatia really pushes it to extreme- it happens regularly that some English phrases are literary translated into Croatian, and now, we not only have “handmade” items, or the verb “addati”- from to add, we also have “best ever” literally translated, that just doesn’t make any sense in Croatian, or better explained, it’s a completely false use of the adverb ever. It annoys me a bit that we loose our ability to speak our language properly, so I understand completely the troubles you’re going through as a Brit living in Italy. 🙂 I really enjoyed your post! Sorry, I wrote an essay!