Sharing a language: bonding with some, excluding others?

Mimo CaenepeelDr. Mimo Caenepeel is the founder of Research Communication Scotland, which supports researchers in articulating their ideas clearly and effectively. Having grown up in Belgium, Mimo has lived in the US, Canada and France as well as Scotland. For more information, visit Mimo’s website.

I can get passionate about the advantages of bilingualism — not just the perceived advantages, but also the less-immediately-obvious advantages that are supported by solid research. Being bilingual feels enriching and has never held me back. Hearing ‘foreign languages’ (i.e. languages other than English) in Scotland or other English-speaking countries gives me a small but very real thrill, irrespective of whether I understand what is being said. Is it a good thing to be able to speak more than one language? The answer to that question feels like a no-brainer to me, if only because bilingualism turns out to be good for – amongst other things – the brain.

Yet the dynamics of speaking different languages can sometimes be more complex. I reflected on this recently when I overheard some close friends complaining about the fact that two Gaelic speakers had had a conversation in Gaelic after a meeting – in the presence of my (non-Gaelic-speaking) friends. My friends, I realised, were annoyed about this, and also a bit upset. When I asked why, they said it was obvious. Why not speak English? Why choose to speak a language that some people can’t understand?

At first I was non-plussed. I could understand why the Gaelic speakers would want to seize the opportunity to speak Gaelic, and I was puzzled by my friends’ response. But then I was reminded of how my daughter, when she was three or four, would sometimes whisper to me that I was being rude when I spoke Dutch (‘our’ language) to her in the presence of her friends. Speaking Dutch came naturally to me, but she tuned in to the fact that it might make her friends feel excluded.

It’s the same ‘rub’ that a dad who only speaks English might experience when his wife and daughter (or son) communicate in a language that he does not – or not fully – understand. The dad might well want to encourage his wife to speak to their child in her first language, because he wants the child to be bilingual – but mixed feelings are part of the picture too. A shared language can be a powerful bond that includes some and not others. The sense of exclusion this can create is particularly strong in a context of ‘privileged monolingualism’ – in my experience, bilinguals are generally less concerned about being in the presence of a language they don’t understand.

Is this an argument against bilingualism? Of course not. If it was, it would be an argument against the amazing multi-lingual world we live in. Experiencing feelings we don’t like (such as feeling excluded, perhaps with a touch of envy) is part of life, not a problem that needs to be resolved. But being aware of it can be useful, and – just like bilingualism – make the world a richer place.