I wish I wasn’t bilingual! – nah, not really

by | Feb 5, 2014 | Bilingualism, Only happens to a bilingual | 14 comments

I wish I wasn’t bilingual! - nah, not really

To me there is no doubt that being bilingual can only be beneficial for you. Some people have challenged my view and asked me to write about situations that would have been easier had I been monolingual. Right. Hmm. OK, for the sake of balance it is only fair to take on this challenge and tell you about situations where I (for a split second only) have thought “Oh, I wish I didn’t know this language!” … so here goes:

Overhearing discussions that are not meant for anyone else

You are more likely to experience this if you know a language that is fairly unusual in your environment. It has happened to me many times, especially on public transport. Often I have been unable to move away so not to have to share the experience, which was clearly not meant for my ears. There you are with the conundrum whether to make the others aware that you can actually understand their discussion and thereby potentially embarrass, upset or anger them; or just sit there and listen to how someone describes something awful/disgusting/illegal/you-name-it that you rather did not know.

Understanding other’s comments

Similar to the previous situation, but here what is spoken is about yourself, your family or the company you are in. This can easily happen if you do not look like a typical speaker of a particular language. As you may be aware, I have gained a passive understanding of basic Punjabi. This was particularly interesting when I spent some time in India and was able to comprehend comments when I was out on town. These situations were mostly funny, but there were some instances I rather would not have known what was said.

“You know German, can you quickly translate this article about liquid-propellant rockets for me”

Yes, I know German and Yes, I do translations, but No, I can’t quickly do the translation for you. And Yes, I would actually expect you to pay me for the translation. That you know a language does not mean that you can rustle up a translation in no time. To translate something properly, you have to know your subject (I don’t know anything about liquid-propellant rockets!) I am sure I speak on behalf of all bilinguals when I say that we are proud of our languages and do not like to produce anything substandard, so if we translate we want it to be good. Don’t take me wrong, I don’t mind helping anyone with a couple of sentences here and there – but for a longer translations with special terminology, please pay someone to do it for you, don’t rely on your bilingual friends.

Those were the situations I could come up with – so nothing too much to complain about really. Certainly these inconveniences do not in any way measure up to all the positive reasons why I am truly thankful for my languages.

Have you ever experienced anything along these lines?

PS I have no idea whether ducks and swans can understand each other’s language …

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  1. expatsincebirth

    Dear Rita, this is great. I don’t know for how many years I did translations “for free” because I was working for people and they just thought that “well, you know German/Italian/French… you surely can quickly translate this for me”. But I must say that I also did very long translations (long scientific articles) and got payed for it. And as about having to listen to conversations I really didn’t want to hear: this happened very often. I’m blond and speak German to my children (at least most of the time…) and while in Italy I overheard some comments that were not always flattering (well, some are still a bit angry about Germans) but I also did comment in Italian then and usually they were just speechless. Idem in the workplace, when someone who knows you talk the language, starts speaking in a dialect or uses some expressions he thinks you won’t understand: and then they got my response 😉 I actually had fun with this “game”. But true, for some comments it would be better if we wouldn’t understand. It happened in England that people were talking about my kids, thinking that they wouldn’t understand. The comment of my son : “this is really inappropriate!” 😉

    • Rita Rosenback

      I can so feel for you – thank you for sharing your experiences!
      You are right: giving an answer in a language the other person doesn’t expect you to know can lead to hilarious situations and can be a really good comeback if one is needed. I will never forget the faces of the Indian shopkeepers when I started haggling in Punjabi – saved me a lot of rupees 🙂
      Love your son’s reaction – it is so important children feel confident about their languages!

  2. Loving Language

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! I can’t say I would have ever preferred not to know languages and not to hear those things. I usually got a good laugh out of the situation, as the other person gets put really on the defensive. But I guess if you were forced to say why monolingual would have been better, I guess that’s what you have–there aren’t many good reasons anyhow. 🙂

    • Rita Rosenback

      I must admit I was struggling to find “negatives” and as you say, these situations are in most cases more funny than awkward. Thank you for sharing your thoughts,

  3. Dominique Goh

    Everyone here is effectively bilingual as it is built into our education system. However I agree with you knowing more then one language is certainly effective especially with dealing with gossipmongers. I don’t do translations but do translate on a daily basis from Cantonese/ Mandarin or depending on what language is being used to English so that the kids will be able to understand the conversations better.

    • Rita Rosenback

      In Singapore and other places where the absolute majority are bilinguals, I presume people would be a bit more careful with what they say when others are within hearing distance.

    • Rita Rosenback

      I know! I don’t mind at all doing the odd translation now and then, but if it is a big job and you are expected to do it there and then it’s not on, is it?!

  4. emilia

    Hi Rita, I always read your blog and I love it! as for very odd translations, once a friend of my parents bought a little yacht, and had an english-only instructions manual thath he was not able to read. My mother was kind enough to tell him that her daughter (me!) was proficient in english and was now and then doing translations for some medical editors, and would certainly be glad to help him and arrange a quick translation for him! and this is how I had to translate some 150 pages with an entirely new set of words and meanings, about the engine of the yacht, and the sails, and how to drive, clean and store the boat and so on!!! and for free, ca va sans dire!!! 😉

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for your kind comment! Ouch ,,, I really do hope the yacht owner has been using the manual, the amount of time you must have put on it! I presume you gave you mother a hint to check with you first before she offers your translation services for free the next time 🙂

  5. Stephen Greene

    A great post. The only time I get frustrated with speaking two languages is when I have visitors who don’t speak Portuguese. I don’t mind translating for them most of the time, but after 3 or 4 weeks I just get tired of it. It takes a lot of mental activity and I can get very tired. It also means I can spend a whole evening just reapeating other people’s words and not saying anything of my own.

    Only a slight problem, and the advantages definitely outweigh this.

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you, Stephen! You are making a very good point. Yes, our languages are like second nature to us, but it is still exhausting to keep a discussion going when you are the “piggy in the middle” and anything you do say yourself, you have to repeat. I can see that 3 or 4 weeks could feel like a reeeally long time!



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