There are certain questions that all multilinguals have been asked at least once in their lives, whether by other polyglots to see if they can relate to the answers, or from monolinguals who are just curious. In an attempt to get those popular questions answered, I asked my friends to send me all of the questions they've ever wanted to ask a multilingual, and I've included them in my article.
I identify as a multilingual: I fluently speak Greek, Albanian, English, German, and Spanish. The answers are based on personal experiences and observations. That means they might vary from individual to individual. Languages are an important part of my life and my identity, they influence how I think and act in many situations, and so I have some level of expertise, but in no way am I a professional!
Here are all the questions answered...
1. What language do you think to yourself in?
For the most part, I find myself thinking in my native language. Most of the conversations in my head happen in my native language, and the rest are usually influenced by what I'm doing at the moment. For example, if I am with my English-speaking friends, my brain will be in English mode. If I'm alone thinking what I might have for lunch, or any general thoughts, those are for sure in my native language.
2. What language do you dream in?
Based on the ones that I remember: My dreams seem to be a representation of what happens in real life. For example, if I am dreaming of a conversation between me and another person, the language that I would use in real life to communicate with that person, is the language that I use in my dream. General observations, self-narration, etc tend to be in my native language. Anything can happen in a dream though, so that is not absolute.
3. How do you think when speaking a different language?
When speaking a non-native language, I am usually already thinking in that language, so I don't have to translate anything on the spot. If I associate words for what they are without translating them, or if I translate them, also depends on how fluent I am in a language.
4. Does everything perfectly translate from one language to the other?
Unfortunately, no. There are many idiomatic expressions and slang words that you cannot translate to other languages. In those cases, you have to paraphrase. Some jokes are only funny in their original language. One language might have a richer vocabulary to better describe certain phenomena than another. You might feel like your audience isn't understanding what you really want to say. It can be challenging; the best you can do is to paraphrase.
5. Is learning other languages easier once you speak more than one?
Definitely! The more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to keep going. That's because you become familiar with the process and you know which learning methods work better for you. You will also reach a point where learning will not only be achieved by memorizing rules and new words, but also by comparing the new language to the ones you already know, in terms of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.
6. Have you ever tried pretending to be a secret spy?
Not yet! I have pretended to not speak the local language many times though, simply because it's fun! I've also used that ability as an opportunity to get away from awkward situations by shaking my head and going "No English!", and then start speaking something else.
7. How do you stay fluent in multiple languages?
By constantly using them all. If you don't use it you lose it, they say, and that is 100% true! I always to be around each language as much as possible. Movies, books, podcasts, practicing with other speakers, etc. are only a few ways to help you stay fluent.
8. What’s the worst part of being multilingual?
When you want to say something but suddenly you can't think of the word for it in NONE of the multiple languages you speak. I don't know why that happens, but when it does, it is frustrating. Yes, I can paraphrase what I want to say, and people will understand me, but it will still bug me until I remember it in all five of them.
9. How often do you confuse the languages?
Quite often. It's usually something like walking into German class and saying "Hola" and walking into Spanish class and saying "Hallo", or like saying "Euxaristw" instead of "Thank you".
10. What’s your favorite part of being multilingual?
Everything! Fine, I'll be more specific: When working in customer service, I get to help customers who don't speak English. At my last job, I honestly had at least one repeat customer for every language that I speak. Not only does that help ensure that the customers get what they want without any confusion, it also makes their experience a lot better and they leave satisfied and with a smile on their face. They most definitely put a smile on my face as well!
11. What are some techniques you use to figure out what signs in a language that you don’t speak say?
I mostly look at the context within which the words are used, and then I look closely to see if they look like any other words that I know. Maybe they derived from those other words, and if that's the case, their meaning has to be similar.
12. Have you ever tried using all the languages you know at once, like in a song?
Yes, I actually have drafts of such songs!!! I also like to play around and write the longest sentence that I possibly can with as many foreign words as possible. It's fun!
13. Do you find your accent drifting away the more familiar you get with a language?
Yes and no. I have read that time usually helps an accent go away, but I don't necessarily see that happening. What I think helps more is how close are the phonetics of a language to the phonetics of your native tongue. Or at least that's the case with me, it could vary.
14. Have you ever been bullied for your accent, or because you stand out?
Thankfully no! People have been very friendly and supportive.
15. Does speaking multiple languages help you in life?
MOST DEFINITELY YES! I have already gotten to enjoy a plethora of advantages in many aspects of life. Languages make you a strong candidate for jobs and colleges, they broaden your horizons, and they help you develop your analytical skills. They also make you appreciate diversity and other cultures, they provide you with the opportunity to communicate with a larger and more diverse audience, they make travelling easier, and so much more… Languages open doors!