I love and argue in Spanish, study and gossip in German, work in English and call back home to moan or praise in Polish. On my average day I use four to five languages to get by. How did I end up this way and what are the perks and snags of multilingual living?
No, I’m not from a bilingual family. Neither did I grow up on the road. Actually, my mom had to force me to start learning English at the age of seven, or maybe eight. Then I started to like it. We’ve traveled every holiday and I soon realized I could understand people that not everyone around me could understand. I began to appreciate that studying a language is not a pure theory per se, but it’s a meaningful tool. And it was a life-changing discovery. Years later, regardless of a family tradition to take a path towards medical studies, my mind was made up: I applied for a bilingual high school and soon after I was all about English.
My second language was French, which I totally ignored at first. I had to choose between German and French and didn’t want to learn either. I wanted to learn Spanish. Yet I was offered a last minute spot on a short exchange program with French students, since some of the original participants had gotten wasted on a school trip and fallen out of a window. Well, a shame for them… I went away speaking just a few words, among which the most useful proved to be un sac (a bag), that I still remember searching for in the deepest corners of my memory while my exchange mom was patiently juggling different kitchen objects in front of me to figure out what I meant. I returned to France year after year to meet my dear new friends and improve my language skills. To my teacher’s disbelief and doubt, I chose to take advanced French among my A-levels. That was pretty intense, since I had followed the basic program and had to make up for it in one year. Having dealt with it considerably well, I realized I’d reached another turning point. By reaching C1 in a second foreign tongue, I could feel the learning process becoming significantly easier. By then I had learnt how to learn. I developed my own strategy looking for language patterns.
At university I could finally study my beloved Spanish, which soon after was to be my most-used speech. This is a much beaten track: I moved to Spain as an exchange student, fell in love and stayed (well, for a little bit). I started working in tourism and began juggling languages on a daily basis. Then I got offered a job in Berlin. My partner and I were both eager for change and he already spoke German. We didn’t really have to give it much thought. We moved to this melting-pot, which I quickly learnt to call home. And so it remains to this date.
Whereas I work mostly in English and Spanish, learning German was an obvious choice. I couldn’t imagine living in a country long-term, no matter how multinational it might be, without even trying to master its lingo. After a few months of courses, I could get by when forced to, but I remained too timid and reserved to build strong relationships in this harsh-sounding language. Applying for a local master’s program seemed to be another natural choice. So I did.
After studying seven languages, living long-term in three countries and being in an intercultural relationship for years, I can’t imagine leading a different life. I love having a secret language that nobody understands (that would be Polish), I love to pretend I don’t get what all these loud juicy train conversations are about and then suddenly speak up (that would be Spanish), I love to discover the subtle differences between the English slangs, I love to bridge all these unpronounceable French words till they sound like a unified fluctuating sound one may finish only with a full stop, and I’ve even learnt to appreciate the rigid cube-like German with its cool wardrobes (Kühlschrank is a fridge, but literally means a cool wardrobe!) and toads with shields (Schildkröte is a turtle, though taken word for word, it’s a toad with a shield!).
But there are still days when I just wake up and everything sounds foreign to me. When I can’t even find suitable words in one mother tongue. Last year, I was a couple of months back in Poland to carry out market research and to my disbelief, I realized I feel awkward talking business in Polish. I’d just never done it before. I was suddenly unsure whether I should use formal or informal expressions. In Polish (like in German) you distinguish between a formal you and a casual one (not to mention the grey zone, when you can use Mr. or Ms. and their first name). I also unconsciously imitate accents with ease, thus when native speakers leave the room, my pronunciation deteriorates almost instantly. There are language combinations I can swap between smoothly, since I’ve often had to do so, while others get me choking with impotence and make me forget my name.
Another tricky territory is swearing. It’s really hard to determine the weight of a curse across different languages and cultures. It’s simply very personal and, unless you’ve grown up in a multicultural family, there was probably no one who’d ban these words for you when you were learning. I face it while speaking Spanish, which I consider to be a really easy-going language and one I’ve mostly learned outside of the classroom. I find myself using Spanish expressions that I’d find extremely vulgar and totally tasteless in Polish. Yet, I sort of forget the meaning behind me cago en dios (literally, ‘I shit on god’) while shouting it out loud at the office when the printer fails to work again.
Then there’s of course false friends, or simply really fun expressions that I struggle to carry over into another tongue. But they’re simply non-transferable, so I just do it in my own way. In the end, they say that a language comes into being at one’s home…