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Saturday, 1 September 2012

Many languages, many functions

We already know that balanced bilinguals (or even balanced multilinguals) are very rare. Instead, the language they use depends on the context- on the place they’re in, the person they’re talking to, the content of the conversation. This is my experience with being multilingual and how I used these languages.

My mother tongue is Polish. My parents spoke mostly Polish with me; I talked Polish with my brother, and with friends at school. It was the natural language for communication, for fitting in with society.

Then, I learned German. At first, it was a natural language for communicating at my German day care. When we came back to Poland, my parents introduced Sundays as German days. I didn’t like it. I just wanted to speak Polish, and only that. My parents, however, insisted on my bilingual education. Later, I picked a school based on their extensive German program, and continued to learn to read and write in this language. Slowly, German became the language of education and work. My school offered 3 times more German classes than Polish classes (even though other subjects such as biology, chemistry etc. were taught in Polish), and I read a lot in this language. This was even more the case when I went to University and studied German philology (in Poland, we don’t have majors and minors, we just pick one subject), which required even more reading, speaking and writing in German. I also worked in a German-speaking environment. The division was now clear: Polish is for communicating. German is for studying and working. However, I felt that my mastering of these two languages wasn’t really my doing. I didn’t really learned Polish, it just happened. I also felt that I can take no credit for knowing and speaking good German.

Then, English came along. Do you know the reason I learned English? I will tell you, and it’s my dirty little secret. So, when I was a child, I saw ‘Yellow Submarine”. And so begun my love of the Beatles. Later, my father went to Canada for a research program, and brought back a collection of all Beatles CD’s. I loved these CD’s and I wanted to know what the lyrics were all about. How is that not a great motivation? My brother started reading in English because he couldn’t be bothered waiting for the next Harry Potter books to get translated into Polish. Any motivation is good enough for me.

As I was getting more and more fluent in English, I found great joy in reading books in this language. I also worked hard on my English- I attended many English classes, and passed several exams. Not that I think that this somehow proves my use of the language, but it required hard work that was also fun at the same time.

Now, English is the language I use to communicate with my expat friends. This blog is also in English. I read English books- I have a Kindle and the English ones are the most easily available. German that used to be the language of work, became the language I speak to my husband- the language of affection, home-related stuff and conversation. It is also one of the languages our children grow up with. Polish went from being the only natural choice of communication to being my secret, exotic language that nobody understands, save for me, the children and my family and friends in Poland. Which is sad, but also reassuring: I like the idea of having a secret language. 

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  1. Wow, those are brilliant reasons to learn English! I'm impressed with your dedication, as I know myself how hard it is. I've studied French for 13 years and it's nowhere near as good as your English!

    1. Thanks, Tallulah. So, yes, any motivation is good, and even if it's such a funny one as understanding Beatles song (although some of them are pretty straightforward, I must admit). I totally miss reading (adult) books in Polish, although I do find delight in reading children's books in this language.


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