What is it like to be bilingual?


Languages are one of the hundreds and thousands of features that define who we are. Languages hold their own background, culture and structure and as students we learn languages as an exploration of the world we live in. But how is it like to speak and dream in another language?


Investigating the line between dreaming and language learning is difficult to define. Psychologists and neuroscientists has established that speaking in a foreign language indicates a sign of fluency, (which would increase by 0.2% every dream), although when the dreamer is conscious they can barely speak. Scientists would record people speaking in their dreams in different languages and when they woke up they would test them on words they had mumbled. Surprisingly, the dreamers did not know what the words in the foreign language meant when repeated to them.

Dreaming in another language can also express someone’s want and ambition to feeling included, belonged and accepted to the culture and new exposure. It can indicate a strong awareness of and engagement with new language.

A realistic example of dreaming in another language is Maya. After six weeks spent in England, Maya’s English had improved vastly and the change in the environment and location from Germany and England triggered a forced reaction to change how she acts when she speaks our language. On an exeat where she spent it with her sister, her brain had already rewired itself to English and her normal conversations in German had immigrated to English. But it was one night where her sister, on many occasions, had caught her sleep talking. Her words were muffled and spoken in a whirlwind of English and German. Maya had also done this very recently in the dorms and we had caught it on tape one night.


A language can only grow with confidence. As we learn new languages, the confidence that emits from us will project into our pronunciations and attitude and slowly our personality will coil around and around the foreign culture. Speaking with less confidence will cause you to speak in lower, hushed tones and less aggressively like a whimpering puppy. The power of projection in your voice will vary with what language you are speaking. For example, German, Greek and Russian are more aggressive than others. And with our different voices of language, not only will the sounds that we make change but so does our body language.

A study in 2006 showed that linguists displayed more agreeableness and conscientiousness when speaking in English. Whereas when speaking in their own language they showed more assertiveness, achievement and superficial friendliness:

Bilingual 1: “When I’m around Anglo-Americans, I find myself awkward and unable to choose my words quickly enough … When I’m amongst Latinos/Spanish-speakers, I don’t feel shy at all. I’m witty, friendly, and … I become very out-going.”

Bilingual 2: “In English, my speech is very polite, with a relaxed tone, always saying “please” and “excuse me.” When I speak Greek, I start talking more rapidly, with a tone of anxiety and in a kind of rude way…”.

Bilingual 3: “I find when I’m speaking Russian I feel like a much more gentle, “softer” person. In English, I feel more “harsh,” “business-like.”

(source: psychology today) 


What defines a high frequency word?

–        A high frequency words are words we use more often in a language. For example: I, you, he, she, her, it, and, the, we.

If you listen intently to a person speaking to you in their mother tongue after they had spent years mastering another, you may realize how their words switch to another language if they are speaking animatedly. In some people’s dialogue, their mind will unconsciously replace the high frequency words in the language they are most exposed to even if they are speaking in another language.

What defines a low/medium frequency word?

–        Words that are rare in unformal speeches or don’t occur as often.

Low frequency words are fairly different. Low frequency words in the language you are less exposed to are most likely to be avoided. Foreign people would find it hard to use those words as often but there is an acceptation: when the word is unknown to them in both languages. The definition and word is most likely to stay in their brain in the language they have learnt it in, and in this case their less confident language.

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.37.26


You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out.
I thought I spit it out
but overnight while I dream,

it grows back, a stump of a shoot
grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,
it ties the other tongue in knots,
the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,
it pushes the other tongue aside.
Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
it blossoms out of my mouth.

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.38.29

(munay   hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha)
Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.39.08
(may thoonky nakhi chay)

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.39.15
(parantoo rattray svupnama mari bhasha pachi aavay chay)

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.39.49

(foolnee jaim mari bhasha nmari jeebh)

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.40.16
(modhama kheelay chay)

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.41.01
(fullnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh)

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 15.41.32
(modhama pakay chay)

The author, Sujata Bhatt, is from India where she speaks Gujarati – as seen in the poem. While she was writing this poem, she was in distress about her change of identity and expressed her anxiousness and fear about being ‘Americanised.’ The content consists of her losing her tongue, by which she means forgetting how to speak her first language because she always had to speak English ‘the foreign tongue’. But as she dreams, her mother tongue re-asserts itself as her first language.

The feelings of the poet expresses itself as stressed and fearful the foreign tongue seemed to be winning in a war between her two languages. She seems to think that the foreign tongue is winning because she is not using it or because she is consciously not using it.

However in the end, she finished confidently and her happiness is evident in the words she uses.  The allusion to her ‘dreams’ has two meanings – one, that she speaks Gujarati literally in her dreams, but also, it is her ‘dream’ (her longing) to speak it always.

By: Zahra, Maya and Claudia form III

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