Bilingual by necessity

by Holly Mickelson

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

According to science, I’m one of the fortunate. By profession I’m a translator, which means my brain does calisthenics every day to transfer words, thoughts, or ideas from one language into another. The result is that, as a “bilingual,” I am statistically less likely to suffer from early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Holly Mickelson

Cashing in on the benefits

Research also suggests that bilinguals receive better job opportunities. We have better cognitive control, and can more easily filter out interference from other languages. What’s more, as a bilingual, I supposedly have a better grasp on other world views. That means that when I am speaking German, I filter my world through German in much the same way a “real” German would. And like magic, when I switch back to English, my view automatically shifts to my American way of seeing things.

Sounds enticing, but am I really such a mental chameleon? And how did I get here in the first place?

The short version is that I met this great guy in college who just happened to be from Germany. He got a job. I followed him here. We are still here. But it’s been a long slog. For one thing, I learned German as an adult – generally, learning languages after the age of 25 is more difficult. After fifteen years, I know there’s still stuff to learn, and other stuff I may never learn. Even so, I consider myself fluent.

If you’re fluent, are you bilingual?

Traditional definitions of bilingualism paint a rather exotic picture – someone labeled as such must use two languages equally and comprehensively, at native speaker level, without an accent. Oh – and just in case that isn’t enough, bilinguals must acquire both languages in early childhood.

So yes, that sort of bilingualism is a pretty exclusive club and they’ll never let me in. Even psycholinguists, the people who study bilingualism, think bilinguals of that caliber are few and far between.

I subscribe to a more forgiving, functional definition myself. Doing so is certainly better for my ego! To me, bilingualism is the regular use of two languages at a fairly high level of fluency, although one’s fluency in both languages does not have to be equal.

Interestingly, more than half of the planet fits this definition. Pinning down an exact figure is difficult, but think of all the countries in which multiple languages are spoken and you start to get an idea. Switzerland has no less than four fiercely defended official languages. India recognizes more than twenty regional languages. In any case, speaking one language at home and another at work is fairly common.

Even with my functional definition, it’s difficult to shake off the idea that I’m not really and truly bilingual – but that’s just because I’ve got an outdated and unrealistic label in my head.


Feeling the need

Actually, I’ve been thinking about the state of being bilingual for years. As I see it, it all comes down to necessity. Why did I need to learn? Or maybe, why did I feel the need to learn?

The point is, for most people, becoming bilingual often grows out of need. The exotic kids I grew up with who spoke two languages did so not because as toddlers they thought it would be fun to learn Japanese, nor because their parents thought a knowledge of Spanish would help them get ahead later in life. They spoke those languages because they were what was spoken at home.

And more importantly, maybe those kids spoke Japanese but couldn’t read it, or understood Spanish but couldn’t speak it. Language experts say such “inequalities” are in fact the norm.

As for me, I learned because I wanted to talk to people. My first few months here in Germany were kind of like living in a world of white noise – it was pleasant for a while, but in the end, I was lonely. I’m a people person and I like participating in the world around me. Since ultimately I’ve made Germany my home, I also wanted to fit in. That’s much easier when you speak the language, because it’s one of the most critical keys to understanding a culture.

And I wanted to work. I knew I could probably find work in English, but I felt I would lose out by not having the German skills to communicate with German-speaking colleagues. After all, the German world of work is a culture all its own!

Which language tips the scale?

Of course, there’s a catch. A learned language is rarely learned 1:1 with a native language. I can read, write, speak and understand German – but not at the same level I can English. Yet I’m still considered fluent, and I am functionally bilingual. It’s just that some subsets of my German knowledge are more extensive than others. Coming to German later in life means I’ve learned more selectively, focusing on those areas that relate directly either to my life at home with the family or to my work. I suspect most of those lucky bilinguals who grow up with two languages also favor one language as well, even if they don’t realize it.

It makes sense, really. Translators certainly know the value of specialization – the better you know the intricacies of a subject’s vocabulary and use, the easier it is to translate it. And the more often you come into contact with it, the easier it gets. Sure, I can probably translate a text on medical procedures, but I’d have to do a lot of research to do it well, and it would probably take me a long time because it would be my first time. But I feel truly bilingual by anyone’s definition when it comes to topics I work on regularly: give me a press release on space probes and I’ll know it like the palm of my hand!

So what’s the next step? Maybe I should learn another language – it keeps the brain healthy and in shape. Who needs Sudoku?

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