What I have learnt from being bilingual

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You’ve all heard about the enlightening benefits of raising a bilingual child. However, I have found  in the past six months that being a bilingual person can lead to frequent existential crises and periods of self-doubt.

Remember Freshers’ Week? Typically, the first question anyone asked, after your name, would be ‘Where are you from?’. This isn’t the type of question you would spend ages discussing. For me, however, every time I answered ‘My name is Margo. I’m from France’, I would be looked at with confusion. ‘But where’s your French accent?’

I would then have to explain its absence, and why my English sounded so neutral. The French International School where I pursued my entire education would always pop up in conversation. I’d also have to point out how my parents who met via ERASMUS in the 90s, ended up raising three bilingual children, and having their respective families divided between the Channel. This would somehow justify how I ended up in a British university.

I could not help but question myself… I doubted my English-ness

Before coming to Durham, I had never questioned my upbringing, as I had always been surrounded by friends that knew two, three, four languages and had families spread across the globe. However, as I started this new chapter, I could not help but question myself. Amongst people that had solely been born, raised in the United Kingdom or in another country, I doubted my English-ness. Amongst the group of international students who longingly discussed how nostalgic and homesick they were, missing their home countries, I didn’t feel international enough. Then again, when most of my close friends would easily head back to their homes across England, painful bouts of homesickness would hit me.

This sense of ‘not-belonging’ perpetuated itself as I started the new academic year. In my language classes, I struggled to keep up with the students who had received an education in Britain, as for the past six years I’d been translating from French to Italian and French to Spanish. Having to do the opposite became more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and I’d sometimes find myself cursing the education I’d received. When my Art History teachers noticed that my essays sounded French, I felt ashamed of the lengthy, Proustian phrases that I’d been drilled into writing by the French educational system. Was I more French, and could I say that I was authentically English, like my birth certificate showed? And in the end, where did I belong?

When my Art History teachers noticed that my essays sounded French, I felt ashamed

This uncomfortable feeling of unworthiness made me go back to this French expression which curiously has the same literal translation in English: ‘avoir le cul entre deux chaises’, or to be ‘caught between two stools’. My older brother, who graduated from a British University and went to work in Germany, had mentioned this expression countless times since he as well had battled with this internal monologue. He now finds that informing new relations of where he has lived in the past is a no-fuss answer to his multicultural background.

Personally, I still find it difficult to answer this question for myself: I have come to terms with the frustration by accepting I will never fit in one category. I will nevertheless be eternally grateful for having been raised in an environment where bilingualism and interculturalism were omnipresent, and never questioned. In the end, this is what I have learnt from an international education: as Seneca reminds us, ‘non scholae, sed vitae discimus’. We learn not for school, but for life.

Image: Département des Yvelines via Flickr

4 thoughts on “What I have learnt from being bilingual

  • Hi Margo
    Thank you for writing this – it certainly gave me an insight into what being bilingual and growing up with family divided by a channel has meant for you.
    It’s something I need to be mindful of in my work.
    A really interesting read! Look forward to reading more from you!
    Hope you and the family are keeping well
    Susan x

    Reply
  • This article really resonated with me – I was brought up by British parents at a German-speaking school in SE Asia. I moved ‘back’ to the UK at 16, but the sense of belonging, and the perfect answer to ‘where are you from’ have never quite materialised! Having said that, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything, and I know I’m privileged to have had them. I always think Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s ‘Diaspora blues’ sums it up perfectly.

    Reply
  • Dear Margot,
    please look up the term “Third Culture Kid” as I think it would help you a lot to understand this concept. I would also recommend the book Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds by Pollock, Van Reken et al.
    Take care!
    Rita

    Reply
    • Dear Rita,
      thank you so much for pointing out this term, I had never come across it before and it resonates perfectly with what I feel.

      Take care.

      Margot

      Reply

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