Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bilingual or no-lingual?

The Lorax speaks only Danish so far. Since we plan to move back to the US in two or three years, I figure he needs to completely solidify his Danish now. He will learn English soon enough and, hopefully, will end up fluent in both languages.

But, let me tell you, this bilingual thing is not as simple as one may think. First off, I botched both Natali's and my son, Andreas', chances of bilingualism 6 years ago. For the same reasons as the above, my ex-wife and I spoke only Danish to the kids. Whenever we were in the US, they spoke Danish and my ex-in laws had to learn baby Danish to keep up. Then I started residency and they started US day care for the first time - and everything changed dramatically. Within a month, they were perfectly bilingual. They spoke Danish to us and English to everyone else.

Slowly, they forgot their Danish. I showed them Danish movies and online TV, but slowly it disappeared. I read to them in Danish, but it became clear that they preferred the stories in English. I had my own translation of Dr. Seuss, but they weren't buying it.

Andreas is now completely uni-lingual and Natali, because we moved back, is bilingual.

But what does it mean? Is she really 100% proficient in both languages? No; this becomes clear as we read more difficult literature in both Danish and English. She lacks depth; not just knwoing all the words, but reading between the lines, picking up irony and appreciating grammatical intricacies. I'm not 100% sure if it's just her age, but I suspect it has to do with having to keep up with both languages.

We had a medical student rotate through our department last month. A child of Chinese immigrants, he had grown up in Denmark. He was smart, hard-working; a wonderful med student to work with. But his Danish, once he had to construct a hard, thoughtful sentence, was sorely lacking. He had no accent, but he lacked a certain depth that many people commented on. It fascinated me. I don't know if he has ever gone back to China; he probably has. I'm sure the Chinese think that his Mandarin(i'm not sure he speaks Mandarin) is sub-par, having only spoken it with his parents and other Chinese in Denmark.

Then there is my brother and his wife. My sister-in-law's first language is Malay English. What they speak at home is a variant of what Danes call "Danglish", ie. a mix of Danish and English. Most Danes think of Danglish as Danish with lots of borrowed English words. Their Danglish, however, is primarily English, but they share a complete disregard for grammar and sentence structure. Especially their prepositions are off, as they juggle English and Danish. My brother, for example, doesn't ride his bike; he "rides on his bike" or "cycles".

My brother grew up speaking Danish. He went to college in the US and got married in his early 20s. Since then, he has spoken mostly English, or their variant thereof, at home. Without a doubt, he has lost depth in his Danish, both spoken and written. If he were told to speak for a half hour in complete 100% Danish, he would be in trouble.

So my brother and the medical student, are they bilingual - or no-lingual?

As I sit here pontificating in my ivory tower, I can't ignore my own situation. Admittedly, I'm a little bit like my brother; it's hard not to be. But we do try to speak 100% Danish at home; mostly for the sake of the Girl and the kids, but also for me. We have almost lived in Denmark two years now, and I still speak Danish somewhat haltingly. I have no accent, of course, but I have definite trouble constructing sentences, especially Danish colloquialisms. Yesterday, in an elevator, I got the idea for this blog post. An attending had gotten frustrated with a notoriously non-compliant patient. She is sometimes a little too nice, or docile, so it was cool to hear her speak up. I wanted to tell her that I thought it was cool to see her.. get a little riled up, see her speak with a little oomph, gusto, fanfare, temper. Halfway through the sentence, choices such as these popped up in my head, but no Danish equivalent came to mind. I used the word "fanfare", which can only be used in its literal sense in Danish, ie. the sound that horns make.

And this happens all the time, especially with patients. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there", "just to rule out something serious", "we'll keep an eye one it"; I want to say this all the time: I start a sentence and realize that there is no Danish equivalent and often end up constructing ugly linguistic orphans.

And my English is going to pot, too! The in-laws were here to visit last week, and my English was certainly imperfect. Again, it lacked depth; it lacked that ability to construct a long sentence, while thinking about the subject matter.

Alas, I am also no-lingual!

So what do I have in mind for the kids? Well, this time, I think it's going to stick for Natali, so she might come out on top of all this. For the Lorax, I know we'll keep speaking Danish at home, and we might move back to Denmark at some point. Or he and Natali may go to college here. So I have high hopes for those two.

Andreas? My 7-year old son who lives an ocean away. My parents are visiting him right now, so I've been thinking about him a lot. If he learned to speak just a little Danish, even haltingly, and without any depth, I would be happy as a clam.

17 comments:

Billy said...

I was able to get my ex back after I followed the instructions at www.saveabreakup.com I totally recommend this site, saveabreakup.com helped me a lot, all I can say is big THANKS!!! I'm so happy now...

sea legs girl said...

Don't you DARE go to Billy's site, Fast Bastard.

sea legs girl said...

Some of the most eloquent physicians and speakers I have heard do not have English as a first language. They take sayings from their native language and translate them directly and it seems so profound. People who speak multiple languages no doubt have an ability to think over the meaning of what they say that is beyond unilingualists. I know it's not black and white, but I believe the more languages one can learn, the better one becomes at communicating thoughtfully. Whether or not it all comes out rapidly.

Fast Bastard said...

Hey, Sea Legs, we should meet and talk about this in real life - in the language of your choice.

I agree with your point; you can certainly take your second language farther than your first. And I don't mean the cheap trick of simply translating a foreign sentence construction. I simply think your second language can grow with you in a way your first can't. It can become a second personality, a second sense of humor, often more interesting and genuine than your first.

I don't know how that works for someone like Natali, who has lived half her life with each language.

To Billy: after being divorced and remarried, having moved around the world, while my ex is also happily remarried, in the words of Jim Carrey,

"so there IS a chance!"

Fast Bastard said...

Hey, 4 comments on the first day! And only one from a bot and three from this same computer.

5 comments now, actually.

SteveQ said...

I'm going to go from this site to mine, because, according to my blog stats - no one EVER has.

I always thought that to be truly bilingual, one had to learn both languages before the age of 7; there seems to be a switch that gets thrown about then - those who never learned to speak any language by that age can't be taught grammar, though they can learn words.

sea legs girl said...

Steve Q

One can definitely become *truly* bilingual after age 7. But there is almost no one who won't have an accent if they don't at least start learning or hearing the second language by around that time.

So I guess it depends on what the definition of bilingual is. Is it using all the right words or does it also include speaking without an accent?

Fast Bastard said...

Steve, I go to your site from this all the time. That's why I have the link! You need a better traffic analyzer, methinks.

Agreeing with Sea Legs, I would think it's the accent that's hard to get after age 7, not the grammar. For instance, Joseph Conrad wrote some of the best English literature but reportedly had a thick Polish accent.

SteveQ said...
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SteveQ said...
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Fast Bastard said...

Steve, since no one ever comes to this blog (except for you, my wife and Billy), feel free to divulge on your inappropriate infatuation.

I have a suspect, but am not 100% sure.

olga said...

Sometimes Danni and I get a few words out, but for your information, commenting, unlike reading blogs, is a two0way street. If you don't pay attention to what we say, why would we want to share opinion about what you think? Besides, usually topics more of the controversial matters are the ones calling for comments. If you or SLG win a race, there is nothing new:) I actually read this post twice already, but since I am no-lingual, I didn't dare to write anything up. When folks read my blog, they mention that they can hear Russian language - because I translate, even though to me it seems by now (17 years in US) I think in English by now. We have very different sentence structuring. My husbnad now is learning Russian, and struggles greatly. As for the kids - the older learnt to speak back home, and read and write in Russian at 4, and at 4.5 - it was English. He also went to Russian school for a year in first grade (3 times a week, extra) and we spoke more back then as my own English was far from perfect. He was more of a bilingual till about 10 or so. By the time second child came around to the age of learning the nooks of native language, I spoke well in English, had all American friends, my older was preferring English big time, younger was in school, and I was too busy to put up a fight. Frankly, I don't care. He understands half of what I say (as rarely as I speak Russian at home) and can reply is simple phrases and limited vocabulary. Now that Larry walks around with a dictionary, sometimes Stephen surprises me with his knowledge of word. We are going to Russia for a winter break week, and he claims he'd be able to understand grandparents - I bet he won't respond much though:) If he ever needs to pick it up, he would. Right now he has enough struggles with Spanish at school. Really, why is it so important? He knows he is 100% Russian and he is insanely proud of his heritage. That's all I care about:)

olga said...
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olga said...
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SteveQ said...
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Fast Bastard said...

Olga, I read all the comments, many times over, and especially yours. You're my "oldest" reader, I think, back from the life-crisis anonynous blogging days.

Fast Bastard said...

Steve. That's what I figured.