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Two languages, two personalities: the ups and downs of growing up bilingual

Photo by Ryan Wallace from Unsplash

Caldo (Italian for warm) or Kalt (German for cold), cozze (Italian for mussels) or Kotze (German for vomit)?

As a child growing up with an Austrian mother and an Italian father, false friends were my most feared enemy. With a mishmash of German and Italian in my head, growing up bilingual wasn’t always all fun and games. Do not get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but sometimes I wonder how life would be as a ‘full Italian’ or ‘full Austrian’.

In our globalised world, more people than ever before have been travelling, moving, and emigrating across the globe. Bilingualism, as a result, has become an increasingly common phenomenon. Whether it’s someone growing up in a multilingual community, someone coming from a family who emigrated to a new country, or someone whose parents have different linguistic backgrounds, bilinguals are taking over the world.  

During much of the 20th century, bilingualism was frowned upon and deemed detrimental to personal development. Many assumed that there was only space for one language in a child’s brain and that learning two at the same time would be an obstacle to integration and academic success.

“The benefits of a bilingual brain”, an explanation by TED-Ed on YouTube.

Praise the linguists and cognitive scientists for deconstructing the stereotypes!

Research from the 70s, 80s, and even more recent years has revealed enhanced cognitive skills in bilingual speakers’ brains supporting high-level thought, memory, attention, and multitasking. Looks like bilinguals aren’t that bad after all.

But what does it actually mean to grow up bilingual?

It’s confusing to say the least, but it’s certainly a big flex on your CV. Luckily, you won’t remember any of the struggles once you get old and become somewhat fluent in your two languages. Your parents, however, will be more than happy to remind you of the most ridiculous mix-ups you used to make in your early years. Raising a bilingual child is no easy task, but it surely is a rewarding one.

If you are raising, or planning on raising your child bilingual, you should definitely give The Bilingual Parenting Podcast on Spotify a listen!

Growing up, my mum would speak to me in German, my dad would speak to me in Italian, and together as a family we would use the latter in conversation. Additionally, I grew up in Italy, so the language spoken in my environment was Italian. Somehow, German was the language I was most fluent in, the one I thought in, the one I would watch TV in, and the one I used when playing Barbies. That changed as I started school and was confronted with the reality of living in an area where my favourite language was not spoken.

Photo by Skylar Kang from Pexels

Accidental mix-ups gradually stopped as I realised that German and Italian were two separate languages, and my Austrian accent slowly faded away when speaking Italian. With that started the annoyance of realising I knew less words than my Italian classmates, and less than my Austrian cousins. With two languages coiled around your membranes, it is more than common to know less words in both languages because after all you have double the information in it. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that bilinguals know fewer words in comparison to people that speak fluently only one language.

The annoyance doesn’t stop there, bilinguals, for instance, suffer more from ‘tip of the tongue’ moments than monolingual speakers. If I got a Euro for everytime I forgot a word in both my mother tongues, I’d be fairly rich by now. Irrititating are also those moments in which you realise that there’s so many words, phrases, or puns which simply do not exist in your other language, and there’s no way around it. But enough with the negative talk, let’s look at the bright side.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The cognitive benefits of growing up bilingual are endless. According to a new study, people who grew up speaking two languages, used to switch between the two, can shift their attention between different tasks quicker than monolinguals. With regards to second, or to be more precise third, language aquisition, bilinguals are once again ahead of the curve. Because bilinguals already know more than one language, it’s fairly common for them to pick up another one with ease. As opposed to monolinguals, bilinguals often learn new languages as separate entities from their mother tongues, as they do not have a single base language. What this means is that they do not typically learn a foreign language by means of translating words and phrases from their base languages to the target language, but by associating new vocabulary to concepts.

Yes! The advantages are endless, yet I often find myself struggling when faced with the question: Do you feel more Italian or more Austrian? The answer to that is neither. In Italy, I will always be considered ‘the Austrian’, while in Austria I will always be seen as ‘the Italian’. The two languages and the two cultural identities coexist in me, as is the case for many bilinguals. On some occasions, I feel more Italian, on others more Austrian. I often wish I could simply point at a country on a map and say, “that’s me, that’s where I’m from”.

Then I remind myself that the funny mishmash is what makes me ME. I’m the person who counts in Italian, dreams predominantly in German, thinks in English, and writes the items on a grocery list in whatever language pops up first.

Being bilingual can be hell of a struggle. Sometimes you will feel like you aren’t fluent in any language at all, while other times you will fear forgetting one of them. It’s surely a rollercoaster, but one in which every down is worth the ups.

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