9 Struggles of Being Multilingual

I’ve been told my whole life I should be grateful that I speak multiple languages, and it’s true -- I am lucky to be able to communicate in languages other than English, and it truly has changed me for the better as a person. It’s made me open-minded and adaptable, and I appreciate the opportunities I’ve gotten that have allowed me to be able to be a polyglot. However, there have been more than a couple times where I wish I could block out the cacophony of languages in my head. 


1.“You Speak (Language)?! Say Something in (Language)!!”   

No. No thank you. I’m not a show pony, I’m not a source of entertainment, and while I appreciate your curiosity and excitement of me speaking something other than English, I absolutely refuse to sing a song in Chinese (yes, that’s happened before) or order food in Spanish. I’ll never forget the day when the principal of my high school asked me to introduce myself in Chinese (in front of 5 or 6 other people) when she found out I spoke it, and the humiliation that ensued. Yeah, it might be cool for you, but honestly, it’s embarrassing and makes me want to disappear. 


2. Being a Foreigner in the Country You’re From

I love my tiny country of Belgium. I love going back there, and I proudly shove my Belgian passport into anyone’s face when they ask where I’m from. I’ll point it out on a map, talk about the languages that are spoken there, and even go off about Belgian history. In the US, I’m considered “that crazy Belgian girl.” But whenever I actually go back to Belgium, suddenly I’m the “American-Chinese cousin," which is fine, but it hurts. Why can’t I be a part of the cool Belgian squad? Am I really too Americanized for you? Okay, maybe my French has gotten worse since last year, but isn’t the point of me coming back to be able to practice it and have fun with you guys? No? 


3. “What Language Do You Think In?”

I don’t even know what this question means half of the time, and I certainly don’t know what people are expecting when they ask me this. Most of my thoughts are in English, but when I’m in a French-speaking environment, you can bet that I’m back to thinking in French. Sometimes, I dream in Chinese. Often, I swear at people in my head in Spanish. I’m all over the place, it’s confusing, and yeah, I don’t get it either. Please don’t ask me again. 


4. Going From One Language to Another

At one point in your life, you were sitting in your math class, learning about all of these numbers and how they work. Next thing you know, the teacher’s adding letters. And then the Greek alphabet pops up (sometimes), and all of these symbols, too. As you add more and more things to the equations, it starts to get a little funky. It’s the same thing when you have to go from language to language, and it’s so unfair when people ask you to switch so quickly -- it’s not easy to make the switch, and it requires a lot of effort, especially if the languages aren’t your native language. Also, you can mess up really easily and get confused, which just makes you look unprepared and like you’re lying about being able to speak another language. 


5. When You Hear Someone Talking About You In Another Language

I get elated when I hear someone speaking a language that I speak (e.g.: people speaking French in America, speaking English/Chinese in France, etc.) that it’s so hard not to jump in like an overexcited puppy and introduce myself right away (because then I just look creepy and stalker-ish). Sometimes I do just because I have no shame about it, and other times, I use my mom’s method, which is just to speak the same language very loudly to hopefully catch their attention and get them to come over and say hi. 


6. The Chaos That Comes With Translating

I think this GIF just about summarizes it. I remember one time, a really good French song was playing on the radio, and, as it was playing, I was translating the song to my friend in English. The brain power I had to have while doing that was incredible. I sometimes also have to explain to my family (in French) what something means in English during a movie, and that requires me to be a) watching the movie and b) explaining what a concept means at the same time. Pausing would be too easy. Also, sometimes my brain translates things too literally: for example, if there’s a saying in Chinese and French that is untranslatable (or requires a longer explanation or different words), my brain will kind of just go for it. The other day I told my roommate that it was “fresh” outside, a direct translation of something I’d say in French: “Il fait frais dehors.” It makes no sense in English. Absolutely none. I should’ve said crisp or cool, but I absolutely winged it. 


7. When You Have No Idea How to Pronounce A Word

Imagine being 15-year-old me and stumbling across the word bologna for the first time in my life. Yeah. I understand that it’s a word that’s often mispronounced, but to this day, I still don’t know how to actually pronounce it. It scares me too much. Same thing with pneumonia. Or nuptial. Or atrocious. Or epitome. There are just some words in English that I can’t wrap my head around, and maybe I never will. 


8. “Wow, this language sounds so exotic!”

The French part in Beyoncé’s song Partition (a true bop!) always cracks me up. I guess that for non-French speakers, it must sound really “exotic” (some people have told me that), but for me, it sounds kind of normal and a little strange. I understand Beyoncé’s creative choice, but the message kind of gets lost for me because I understand what the person is singing in that part of the song. Same thing for people with French accents, or movies that have a character who speaks French. It’s painstakingly normal, and really doesn’t shock me as much as it might shock other non-French people. 


9. When You Mix All of Your Languages Together

Frenglish, Spanglish, Chinglish, Spanch (I don’t even know what the right term for mixing Spanish/French is, but that one is hilarious); you name it, I’ve mixed it. This especially happens when I rant or get heated, and random words start to fly out. It’s funny (sometimes), and mostly useful. If I forget a word or my mind blanks, I can easily fill it in with the right word in another language. It’s a weird gift to have, and hilarity often ensues. 


All in all, being able to speak different languages is a gift -- I always try to promote bilingualism, trilingualism, and more, if possible. The most important lessons I’ve learned in life have been from my languages, and that’s why that I believe that no matter where a person comes from, what their story is, what they believe in, or what they look like, you should never judge them for how they talk or what language they speak in. The truth is, they can probably teach you something valuable and worthwhile, and share their unique story. 


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