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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The joys of bilingualism

Of all the abilities I have developed in my life, I would put bilingualism in the top ten (if not the top three).

Communication skills in general are one of the most important assets one can have; be it oral or written, be it verbal or non-verbal, efficiently conveying your thoughts, understanding what others are telling you, "reading" people, even, serves you not only in the workplace but in every sphere of life.

Flirting, for example.

A few years ago, I fell upon the SIRC (Social Issues Research Center)'s Guide to Flirting, and discovered that basically, flirting/finding a mate boils down to communicating effectively. Being able to send the right signals. Being able to read the other person's signals. Most of them being - in a proportion of up to 93% - NON verbal. (This is good news for anyone who's been working - unsuccessfully - at developing pick up lines: apparently, you don't really need any. As long as you master the art of body language.)

Then again, if you master two languages, doesn't that mean you can flirt with approximately twice as many people?

Bilingualism is not solely the art of mastering (or trying to master!) two different languages... for no two languages are "equivalent", as any good translator will tell you. The perfect, 100% equivalent translation, does not exist. Most of the time, translation is, at best, an interpretation.

For more on that fascinating - if somewhat hermetic - topic, read Umberto Eco's Experiences in Translation. Another extraordinary author, Jorge Semprun, in his no less than mind-blowing book L'écriture ou la vie (Literature or life), that he wrote in French even though his first language was Spanish, also touches upon the topic of equivalencies between languages, notably wondering if Heidegger's philosophy would be conceivable in any language other than German.

With every language comes a unique set of historical foundations, cultural characteristics... some people go as far as to say you don't "think" the same way in different languages.

There would be dozens of examples to provide of words or phrases or grammar rules that don't have a perfect equivalent in another language, but I will keep that for later.

(As for those of you who have reservations about bilingualism in children, I strongly encourage you to read serious research on the topic.)

Once they master two languages, some individuals make the conscious choice of not using their first language in their creation. Canadian examples that come to mind are the writer Nancy Huston and the singer Jim Corcoran, both native English-speakers who nonetheless create in French.

Huston says that it was easier for her to find her writing voice in French. Corcoran, on the other hand, mentioned in some TV interview (I'm digging old memories here!) that his first french kiss (with a French girl, bien sûr!) convinced him of the value of the French language.

As for myself, I chose to write this blog in English mostly for modesty reasons: I feel naked when I write in  French. Writing in English, since it's not my first language, puts a slight distance between me and my writing. I don't feel like I'm putting my guts on the page. I don't feel as naked. I feel like I'm at least wearing a negligee.

(That's when D ruins it all by exclaiming "Well, it's still sexy!")

My only reservation about bilingualism is that you never fully master your second language the way you do your first language, which can lead to awkward situations such as the following:

A friend of mine, V, wrote the following status on her Facebook account:

"I am at the restaurant with my boss and getting it on by the waiter in front of everyone."

We were all in awe until it finally occurred to us that what she actually meant to say was "I am getting HIT on by the waiter".

The difference one poor letter can make!

Not much better myself, I recently loudly announced, upon arriving at a party (and trying to be helpful):

"I'm willing and able! Is there anyone I can do?"

(At least no one can reproach me a lack of straightforwardness!)


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