Bilingual

Some people are bisexual, bimanual, bipartisan, bipolar, bisomething… nothing wrong with that, but me, I am simply bilingual.
It is a mild affliction caused by prolonged exposure to certain species, and I understand that it is a fairly common condition in America.
To avoid this kind of contamination, it is recommended to stay away from the natives, wash your hands often and cross yourself when you hear something that doesn’t sound kosher.

Bilingualism is the subconscious ability to speak two languages fluently. It is some kind of mental ambidexterity. A little bit like driving a car with a stick shift.
When you drive a “stick” you are not really conscious of what you right foot, your left foot, your right hand or your left hand are doing. You let your limbs do their own thing while thinking about something else.
The same goes for bilingual people. They let the “bilingual” part of the brain do the talking while the unilingual part deals with another matter.

The bilingual phenomenon happens naturally for some, and artificially for others.
It happens naturally when parents, both natives of the same foreign land migrate and settle in another country, like America for instance.
Their children will first hear and learn the parents’ native tongue and then unconsciously they will absorb English by osmosis. Without even realizing it these kids will turn into bilingual bots.

For some, like me, this phenomenon didn’t come naturally. It had to work to acquire it.
When I came to America, I was alone and I had to learn how to communicate with the natives in order to fend for myself.
I found television to be of great help. Especially commercials. The Persil “Whiter than white” motto became my mantra. I heard it many times and it showed on bold characters on my black and white TV screen.
Commercials taught me a great deal, I am sorry to say, but what can you do when you have no job or friends to go to? Like all immigrants you watch TV.

When you learn a second language, you translate instinctively into you native tongue everything that you hear or everything that you read.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I noticed a sign on a window. It said “Venetian Blinds”. This was easy to translate; I assumed immediately that Venetian Blinds was a charitable organization dealing with blind Venetian natives.

As I walked the streets of San Francisco, I noticed this ubiquitous sign again and again and I started to wonder why so many blind Italians had settled in this city.
I knew that the founder of Bank of America was Italian, but did he send for all his blind “paisanos” to join him?

Another day I glanced in wonderment at the Chronicle’s headline. It said in big bold characters “cons escape”.
The word “con” in French means stupid, dumb.
I naturally translated “idiots escape”. I thought that it was a rather strange headline but ”when in Rome, do as the Romans do” and I accepted the fact that in America (the land of opportunities), even stupid people are allowed to escape from a well-guarded prison.
On second thought, if stupid people could escape, what about the smart ones?
San Francisco must have been swarming with smart escapees…

In order to become truly bilingual, you need to throw away the translation process and slip into the skin and the mind of a “sabra” Yank. You need to think and act native. Smoking pot and drinking whiskey might help.
This body and mind transfer is not easy and a lot of things can go wrong. One mistake and you could easily turn into some kind of lead-footed Frankenstein.
This transfer business takes a lot of practice, but being curious and being a voracious reader also helps.

I remember that the word “cockpit” puzzled me (and still does) for a long time.
Did pilots originally fight like cocks in the “cock pit”? Everybody knows that large plane have dual controls, but did or do pilots and co-pilots actually brawl in this cramped space? And nobody knows about it?
I am getting goose pimples just thinking about it.

Some words are also misleading. They are “false friends”. They sound and often spell like words you are familiar with, but they have a totally different meaning.
Take the word “sale” for instance. I saw it on the windows of many stores.
In French it means “dirty”.
Were all these downtown stores peddling some X-rated stuff?
I not totally adverse to some tasteful smut, but still…

But bilingualism is not a terminal disease and it is not genetically transmitted.
Your children, and probably your grandchildren, might become immune to it.

After being immersed in a foreign environment for many years, your native tongue will tend to become a little fuzzy, and with time (and a few pills) you can get rid of it.

But if you get a certain buzz speaking and cursing in the language of you forbearers, by all means, indulge in this guilty pleasure regardless of the Establishment’s frowns.

I am bilingual and metrosexual. Hear me roar!

Alain

 

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