A downside of being multilingual?

I am grateful to have been brought up multicultural. I immensely cherish this part of my upbringing and would feel less the person I am for the the lack of it. But, are there downsides to being multilingual..?

Six years ago in Cambridge, being surrounded by people from all over the world, made me reflect on the multicultural/multilingual aspect of my life. It was in Cambridge that, for the first time in my life, I actively gave this matter a serious thought and then I put those thoughts to paper. Eventually resulting in chapter 12 of Colours of a Cultural Chameleon: Communist Cambridge.


Generally, my first choice of (written)language is English. All my (previous travel) blogs and my novel are in English. However now I live in the Netherlands and all my fellow writers during online writing sessions are Dutch; hence we write in Dutch. A few weeks ago, during one of these online sessions we were given a visual prompt for free writing. If you’re able to read the bit of the scrawled writing in my notepad, then you’ll notice what I realized after laying down the pen…..I had code-switched!

I smiled when I saw it. I often code-switch, Dutch, English, Hindi & even some Spanish. I love code-switching when speaking to other multilinguals, while making my grocery lists, and my personal diary is of course written in different languages too, but I try to avoid code-switching ‘in public’.

Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a SINGLE conversation. Multilinguals sometimes use elements of multiple languages when talking with each other.

source Wikipedia (slightly adapted by author)

I love code-switching, but I know some people find it quite annoying and propagate the use of local words instead of English words. Don’t ‘Americanize’, in other words don’t lose or dilute the local vocabulary. I certainly agree with this to some extend. In my opinion it would be a shame if all the world would speak only one language (English). I think it’s important to preserve world languages and not let them be erased or replaced by English. Am I the right person though to make this claim, as I myself am a culprit?

In many upper- and middle-class Indian families, English has already won over the local language, as my friends tell me. I wonder what’s the reason. Is it the same reason that holds for me? For me code-switching comes natural. When I know you speak my languages and I can’t (quickly) remember a word in the language that we are speaking, I will substitute it with the word from our common other language. It stimulates quick and energetic conversations. I love energetic chats.
In English I often miss some of the eloquence, that many of my Indian high school friends possess. In the US I loved the ‘beautiful word usage’, the way Americans used wonderful words like epiphany, nifty, salient, dichotomy, juxtaposition…..in everyday conversations. I started ‘becoming a writer’ in the US. While I was immersed in the English language I noticed I started adopting those wonderful words in my own active vocabulary. While teaching Dutch in Boston, to primary school kids, I tried my best to refrain from code-switching and stuck to Dutch. I realized I could managed this with determination and full focus, but I also realized that as a TCK I found grammar tough to explain, especially while trying to use the right terminology. I got utterly confused with the terms like voltooid gebruikt bijvoegelijk deelwoordvoltooid deelwoord and bijvoegelijk naamwoord. While checking the kids spelling I had to write the word on paper – to check ‘which one looked right’ 😉 – before I could correct theirs. As a multilingual writer, I notice how I sometimes misspell words like where/were/wear, hear/here, no/know/now etc. Sometimes I use Dunglish words without realizing, but on a positive note in Colours of a Cultural Chameleon I have (unknowingly) introduced a new word: ‘bouldering laugh’. My (American) editor spotted this word and told me he hadn’t hear the word before, but he liked it and he got the jest of the word….so we let it be. I suppose, this is one of the joys of being multilingual.

Being multilingual, I know that each language has its own feel to it, its own rhythm and tone. Language is not merely a means of communication, it expresses so much more. Culture, identity, personality & language are intertwined. When I speak in Hindi, I speak differently compared to when I speak in Dutch; my body language and use of voice differ. The differences conveyed in different usage of the same language can be subtle. I recall, once when I conducted research in a village in India, one of the locals told me he didn’t understand what I said, even though I spoke his language, to him it was a different language.

As with everything, there are downsides of being brought up multilingual….but having come to the end of my blog, I am still wondering: are there real downsides of being multilingual?

Published by shakti

Author of Colours of a Cultural Chameleon. Kindle & paperback available on Amazon

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