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  • Writer's pictureMagali Jeger

Life of a Bilingual Writer

Growing up speaking multiple languages is a blessing. It strengthens cognitive abilities, keeps us sharp, is a great conversation starter and looks awesome on our CV's. However, as a writer I've found some flaws with this inherently awesome skill. These are the disadvantages I've found when writing as a bilingual (or multi-lingual) person:

  1. Forgetting words Imagine this: writing a story in English, reading something in French, whilst listening to a voice note from my Dutch mother. In these situations, I completely forget about any grammar, vocabulary or general sentence structure and instead of speaking five languages, I suddenly speak none.

  2. Keeping up with all the languages Seeing as I've been living in the UK for almost 5 years, my English professional proficiency is much more advanced. A couple of weeks ago I received an opportunity by a French-speaking employer and had to send him an email. This gave me the harsh realisation that I had no clue on how to construct a professional sounding email in French. So instead of sending an email I ended up calling him. Turned out I didn't know how to sound professional on the phone either.

  3. Getting lost in translation Stories, anecdotes, jokes... Forget about those. Most things which might be hilarious, meaningful or thought-provoking in one language can sound dull and uninspired in another. The word "gezellig" in Dutch for instance. It's a word used to described a cosy environment, a sociable or enjoyable atmosphere. However, there is no word in English (or French) that can properly translate this saying. Lunch with friends can be "gezellig", watching TV with your partner on a cold winter day can be "gezellig", a hip restaurant with a funky interior can also be "gezellig". How do you translate that?

  4. Making up expressions and sayings This is a terrible habit that I cannot get rid of. I am constantly translating idioms or making up words. "Voilà" is a French word that has no translation in English. One might translate it to“there you have it!” I constantly use this word in English, though one might say that is another cookie (another Dutch saying).

Still, I'm very grateful for this skill and find beauty in switching languages. My parents, brother and I are able to communicate in our common languages. This wonderful skill suddenly feels like a special bond that only we have. Switching from Dutch, to English, to French, whilst sometimes throwing in words from other languages (when we forget how to speak) leads to funny situations and makes this experience even more worth while.


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