Are you bilingual mon ami?

I just heard a TED lecture about bilingualism, and it reminded me of something I wrote about 10 years ago. Here is a slightly edited version of that story.

Some people are bi. Bisexual, bimanual, bipartisan (disappearing species alas), bipolar, bi-something…  Me, I am just bilingual.
It is a mild affliction caused by prolonged exposure to foreigners; 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 sounds “étranger.”

Bilingualism is the subconscious ability to speak two languages fluently. It is like having some kind of mental ambidexterity, or like driving a car with a stick shift.
When you drive a “stick” you are not 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 reflecting on something else.
The same goes for bilingual people. They let the “bilingual” part of the brain do the talking while giving the monolingual part a rest.

The bilingual phenomenon happens naturally for some, and artificially for others. It happens naturally when parents, both natives of the same foreign land, relocate to another country.
Their children will first hear and absorb their parents’ native tongue, and then they will unconsciously assimilate English simply by proximity with the natives. Without even realizing it, these kids will turn into bilingual bots.

For some, like me, this phenomenon didn’t come naturally. I had to work for it. When I came to America, I spoke some dubious, hesitating English. I was alone, and I had to quickly learn how to communicate with the natives to fend for myself.

When you learn a second language, you instinctively translate into your native tongue everything that you hear and read. One day, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, a storefront window sign caught my attention. It said “Venetian Blinds”. This was easy to translate; I assumed immediately that Venetian Blinds was a charitable organization supporting blind Venetian natives.

As I explored the streets of the city, 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 Bank of America’s founder was Italian, but did he also sponsor all these blind “paisanos” to join him?

Another day I glanced in wonderment at the SF 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…” and I accepted the fact that in America even stupid people can 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…

To become truly bilingual, you need to discard the translation mechanism and slip into the skin and the mind of a native. Smoking pot and drinking wine might also help. This operation 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 mad chickens in the “cockpit”? Everybody knows that large planes have dual controls, but did pilots and co-pilots actually brawl in this cramped space? 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 different meaning. Take the word “sale” for instance. I saw it in the windows of many stores. In French, “sale” means “dirty”. Were all these downtown stores peddling some X-rated stuff? I am not averse to some tasteful smut, but still…

Bilingualism is not a terminal disease and it is not genetically transmitted. Your children, and probably your grandchildren, will probably become totally immune to it.

But if you get a certain buzz speaking and (especially) cursing in the language of your forbearers, indulge in this guilty pleasure. Speak and curse away like Jean Lafitte. It is fun and highly therapeutic.


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