I’m Bilingual- So what?

[Find out more about this column, “the Menu is not the Meal” by Sophie Morris]

“Having grown up in Germany with English-speaking parents, my whole life has been shaped by internationalism” was the first sentence of the personal statement that I sent off to various universities when I was 17, anxious yet hopeful about the future. I thought of this international background as something I would always be proud of, something I could wear like a badge of honour. “Yeah, I’m bilingual”, I would claim with pride, and perhaps a hint of arrogance.

My bilingual friends and I would make fun of our German teachers who did not understand bilingualism, we ridiculed those who asked “But what language do you think in?”, we laughed at those who claimed to be bilingual just because their school offered more hours of English classes per week than regular German schools. We were the true bilinguals, the ones that articles such as this one were written about. We read about the benefits of bilingualism when it comes to making connections or combating Alzheimer’s, feeling slightly smug – “yeah, that’s about us”. We rode this wave of pretentious superiority, floating through life wearing the badge “bilingual” like it was some certificate only we were worthy of.

Bilingualism, for me, meant perfection. Every vocabulary or grammar mistake would make a dent in my carefully constructed image of absolute equality, because bilingualism – real bilingualism – meant equality between German and English. They needed to occupy the same amount of space in my life and in my head. I was educated in both, as opposed to some bilinguals who learnt one of their languages at home. This meant that I subconsciously felt superior to those bilinguals who spoke one of their languages at home with their family but never properly studied literature or learnt the grammar.

My peers and I were in a bubble of German-English bilingualism that would accompany us from the classroom to our home, and, when we got older, on our travels and to parties. We wove in and out of the two languages freely. We effortlessly used German terminology when speaking English and threw in English slang when speaking German, not caring about strangers on the subway throwing us weird looks when talking about our Abitur in English: “I’m taking Mathe as my Leistungskurs, and I have a Klausur tomorrow”, and laughing when acquaintances at parties looked confused when we said that “Ich muss nach Hause, sonst wird meine Mum echt angry, ya know?”. This “Denglish”, as we called it, was the ultimate symbol of our bilingualism – bilingual fluency, the pinnacle of our language capabilities.

Sciences Po was a shock. I have learnt many things about myself and about the world over the past three semesters, but the question of my own identity, particularly my linguistic identity, was the most significant of all.

“Where are you from?” Probably the most important question of all during integration week, but still a question I am confronted with every other week or so. “Germany”, I’d say, at the start, because, of course, I had come from Berlin. However, I quickly caught on to the fact that I needed to clearly differentiate between where I’m from and my nationality. While thinking about this, I realised it wasn’t that I minded people saying I was not a real German or Irish and British enough.I acknowledge that I have missed many aspects of German culture by growing up in an English-speaking household, and have missed many aspects of British and Irish culture by living in Germany all my life. While insulting, it never affected me as much as the language aspect. Some of my peers at Sciences Po have said things along the lines of “Wow, Sophie, your English is so good! I admire all you students who study in a language that isn’t their mother tongue!” English has been referred to as my second language, or my “mother tongue” in air quotes, and this bristles me. It confuses me. Whereas biculturalism is a mere byproduct of my upbringing, bilingualism has always felt like the core of my identity, and when that was first questioned, it startled me. Now, it just frustrates me.

Sciences Po’s way of viewing languages does not help either.Based on my observations of how Sciences Po treats French or English bilingual students on this campus, they are still forced to learn either English or French at C1 or C2 level. Had I gone to the Nancy campus, where German is offered along with French and English, I might have been forced to take either German or English classes. I would have to declare one of them my native language and one of them my second – foreign – language. For someone who has clung to the ‘bilingual’ badge for as long as I can remember, this is unthinkable.

This is not what I expected at Sciences Po. I expected to be surrounded by even more like-minded people, by students from bi- and tri-lingual backgrounds who would all come together in multilingual revelry. Sciences Po would be just like my high school, just except for English and German, it would be English and French. But on the contrary, at Sciences Po I was given the feeling that even though we all speak at least two languages, everyone *must* be monolingual and then merely learns other languages, meaning there is always a hierarchy. Most seem to think that the country one is from is the country of one’s mother tongue, and if one happens to speak English well (or French, or any other language) this is merely due to good language skills or lucky circumstances. As flattered as I am that people would believe I am that good at learning languages, it confuses me.

I think my attitude to bilingualism has fundamentally changed. I used to see it as perfection, and fluency. It was something so natural, so ingrained in me that even though it was constantly questioned by some of my teachers or my German acquaintances, I was always able to defend it. I knew I was right. Somehow, coming to Sciences Po has made me question my bilingualism instead making me proud of it. My language has always been so closely intertwined with my identity and now, in the face of adversity, I feel like it is my very identity that has been questioned.

What can we take away from this? Having observed my own inner struggle over the past two years, I think it is interesting that I feel this strongly about my own bilingualism. It is quite irrational, in fact, that I care so much about the fact that other people should know that I am bilingual. I’m not one to judge someone for having grown up monolingual or for not having learnt other languages along the way, and I doubt anyone on this campus is. The number of languages we speak or our fluency in them is not necessarily proof of our worth, our intelligence, or even our ability to learn languages. While it can be an indicator of our dedication and hard work, often it is just a result of our circumstances: our heritage, our education, where we have lived. So this is a reminder to everyone, mainly myself, that maybe the things we should be proud of are not the characteristics we were born with or the ones that have been gifted to us – such as the languages we were raised in – maybe it should be the parts of ourselves we have cultivated over the years, our abilities that we have invested time in, and our achievements that we have worked hard for.

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