Is knowing a lot of languages always a good thing?

I’m multilingual, polyglot if you will. I speak more than one language. Doomed to it, as it were. In Switzerland, where I was born and raised, we have four official languages, and I just happened to go to school in that one corner of the country where they speak the country’s smallest language, Rhaeto-Romance, an odd mix between Celtic and Latin.

But, my mother tongue or my first language is Alemannic, which is the language spoken in e.g. Alsace, parts of southernmost Germany, Switzerland, Vorarlberg in Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s a Germanic language but lacks a formal written language. People often call it “Swiss German”, but that’s not linguistically entirely accurate, and it’s very complicated when you blend it Luther, German politics and history. Safe to say that Swiss German is what I’d consider most Swiss speak when they speak High German, language #3 in my life, first taught in fifth grade with a book I remember fondly “Deutsch für Ausländer” where we practiced for hours how to pronounce numbers and colors.

Trilingual by the age of ten, Hexa-lingual by age fourteen, Dodeca-lingual after uni

Let’s fast-forward a few years, to junior high-school, where Latin, French and Italian were added to the languages I had regular weekly lessons in. In ninth grade, English was added, and when I began to study at university, my choice subject added five more languages: Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

Sometimes when you hear people who are multilingual being mentioned in the media you get the impression they all speak a multitude of languages fluently. I don’t, and I never even tried to pretend I do. I was fluent in French at the age of sixteen. Today I still speak it, but I often stumble and have to think about the words I want to use. It serves me for my trips to France, or so I hope, as we visit Paris next week. I was never fluent in Italian, but I get by. When it comes to the “dead” languages of Latin and Old Norse, there aren’t any people to talk to, as the Pope won’t accept my calls and the Vikings are long gone. Also, my studies, especially of Old Norse were not very in-depth. The same is true of Danish, Norwegian and particularly Icelandic. While I can read and understand texts, especially in the former two, thanks to the kindred spirits of all germanic languages, any native speaker will immediately call out my Swedish accent when I try to speak. Up here, we call that “Scandinavian”, this weird blend of our own language with that of our neighbors to make ourselves more easily understood. Often enough, Scandinavians resort to English instead.

Rhaeto-Romance, however, is almost gone. Having been bullied throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, the language became a scapegoat for my emotions and I refused to speak it to anyone or to read any books in the language. Today, I can barely understand people speaking it and even reading is tough. I regret my feelings, but it is what it is. The locals didn’t make it any easier by conjuring up a stupid writing language that was supposed to unite the five idioms but did more harm in the process. It came right at the end of my education and strengthened my resolve to not engage.

I still speak four languages without hinder…

So, what’s left? Alemannic (Saint-Gallese dialect to be exact), German, English, and Swedish. Languages 1, 3, 7 and 9. It makes no sense, right? After that, I’d say French (5) and Italian (6) would follow, then Norwegian (11) and Danish (10.) But still, I’m glad to have those four to speak. And write, right? Wrong.

Sanggalle

Just a sample of what my native tongue looks like in writing, laced with some words spelled in German, probably for lack of knowing ‘how’ to…

First of all, #1 has no formal codified writing, and you should see text messages we send to each other. Everybody just writes anyway they like, in their own dialect, which varies from town to town. Trust me, even reading it is sometimes challenging. German is another thing entirely, as the stupid ministers of culture changed the way the language is written actively as I was in college and basically screwed it all up. I mean I can still write letters and emails, but I could never write professionally. I’d be ashamed to screw things up because, quite frankly, I have no clue what’s what these days. And I say this remembering that as a Swiss, “our” German is vastly different from that in Germany or Austria, and just to repeat, the Swiss written German, which we call  “Hochdeutsch” is nothing, but absolutely nothing like Alemannic.

Which leaves Swedish and English. And I’ve always felt more comfortable writing my prose in English. There are also more English readers than Swedish ones, by a factor of a hundred or so, which made the decision easier.

…but hardly perfectly…

BUT, and I think monolingual people find the concept hard to grasp, I don’t speak any language perfectly. Not that anyone really does, but my point is this: you know the name of a flower in one language, but not in any other. When I returned from my stay in the US in 1987, I had learned a lot of specific terms around funerals, as I’d had to attend a couple, but I didn’t know those terms in Alemannic, my first language. Or any other language for that matter. And that is the case for every situational vocabulary. I’ve learned a lot of terms in English working for “corporate America”, words I have no idea what they’re called in Switzerland or Germany. Some I know in Swedish, etc.

It never ends. Right now, with a son in school, I learn a lot of terms related to school in English, as he’s visiting an English one, but I often struggle with the Swedish equivalents, not to mention the Alemannic or German ones. The list goes on and on.

The more languages you speak, the less you actually know, or so it feels

Sometimes I feel like I have NO language that is truly mine. I’ve not lived in Switzerland for twenty-seven years, so my Alemannic, though spoken regularly, is probably anything but current. My English is a mixture of the Sassenach learned in school, the American learned in High School in the US, and the international variations which are spoken all around me: Indian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Singapore English, Canadian English, and various other non-native flavors. Do I always know the difference between elevator and lift, truck and lorry, etc.? I wish… I’ve already mentioned my troubles with German, where I’ve never lived, a country where people speak very differently in Bavaria, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. I tend to pick up nuances and yeah, my Swiss accent will always give me away, no matter how hard I try to speak Standard German (which no human really speaks in their everyday life) rather than Swiss German, Pferd instead of Ross, etc. And my vocabulary is somewhat limited, especially with regards to “working” situations. To illustrate my frustration, allow me to use an example: a couple of weeks ago, my son asked me about barnacles and how they were attached to whales. I was at a loss, as I’d never even heard the word, not consciously anyway. I had to google. Look it up. And yeah, I did know what it is, in Swedish. But yeah, not in English. The facial expression on my son’s face, that he (English is his first language) knew a word I didn’t, was priceless. It won’t be the last time I get to experience that as he goes through his education learning more and more English, while I go on being lost in translation.

This is a weird situation to be in, especially for someone who uses “language” as his primary source of income. Not a good feeling. And I wonder how monolinguists feel in that situation? Do they simply learn the word? Do they forget again? It’s taken me weeks to remember this new word in English. And I typically, when I learn a new word, need to remember it in more than one language. But more than that, the feeling of inadequacy is that which lingers the longest. To be polyglot, multilingual also means the loss of a native language, a mother-tongue if you will. That is probably that which affects me the most, as we so often associate language with culture, leading me to questions like “who am I?” or “what am I?” I doubt I’ll ever have definitive answers to those burning questions.

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