I used to find it quite cool that people could just dip in and out of different languages when speaking. But one language degree and 6 years abroad later, I now realise that this ‘ability’ is actually an incompetence to think in only one language. Joking. But it does sometimes take an extra effort not to switch languages when you’re used to starting a sentence in English and finishing it in Deutsch.
After reading a blog post about languages and relationships on soundinglustig.com, I was inspired to share my experience too!
How does a relationship become bilingual?
In my experience, the relationship, whether it be with colleagues, friends or a partner, needs to begin under bilingual circumstances in order for it to be bilingual long-term. Your level of fluency greatly contributes to this but the initial few months of constant mistakes is worth it when you consider the speed at which you progress.
Connecting a language to person
I once had a colleague who I only ever spoke to in German. It was only after around 6 months that we first had a conversation in English, and without sounding dramatic, I felt like I was talking to a completely different person. The accent. The tone of voice. The difference in jokes and interjections. These all add to a person’s character, and can change drastically when people speak in different languages. I wasn’t familiar with the ‘English speaking version’ of my colleague, and it was so interesting to get to know her in a different language.
What language do you generally speak with people?
I have some friends who I only speak to in English (usually other native speakers or people who don’t speak German). I have some friends with whom I have a steady ‘Denglish’ relationship, meaning that we hop, skip and jump between the two languages, and finally others with whom I only speak German. This is least common, but we met in situations where English just wasn’t spoken and have rarely been in a situation where we need to speak English.
Different languages for different things
To mix it up even more, I also code-switch with my partner. When texting we use German. When talking on the phone, we use German. When talking in person, the language changes depending on the topic. For example, if watching an English film, any conversation around that will always be in English. For us, this has become so natural that if I switch to English when on the phone, for the sake of those around me, I feel a slight discomfort compared to when speaking in German. If you’re wondering how it ended up this way, it’s because I was so determined to improve my German when I first moved here that if anyone spoke to me in English, I would always reply in German.
Does it get confusing?
Confusing, no. But I do find myself erm-ing when I have to rack my brain for an English word that I only really use in German. And I sometimes have an urge to say ‘tschüss’ when ending calls with friends and family back home.
For me, it’s rarely just about choosing a language, but also the context, the topic and even the emotions. I was once so happy that I felt like I just couldn’t express myself in German. It’s as if my happiness was using up so much power that my brain was like ‘how about we just give German a miss!’ But despite now knowing that you don’t always switch out of choice, I do think it’s pretty cool to be able to switch languages in the first place!