The downside to being bilingual…

… or almost trilingual, is that you don’t speak or write any one language perfectly!

I am Dutch, my first language was Dutch but, as I lived abroad during my childhood, I went to an English school starting at the age of 4. I’m not sure if I was already speaking English by then or whether I learned it when I was there. All I know is that my whole life I remember always being able to speak Dutch and English. The first language I could read and write in was English. We spoke Dutch at home and although I did get some Dutch lessons as a child it wasn’t until I was 16 and moved to The Netherlands that I actually started writing and reading Dutch on any regular basis.

When I was 10 we moved to Germany. My older brothers and sisters continued their education in an international school there, while my younger brother and sister and I went to German school. I was a ‘borderline case’. I really wanted to go to the international school but as it was so expensive, my parents figured I was young enough to switch to German school. While other kids were learning English there, I was taken aside to learn German. Being Dutch helped with that, I was very quickly able to understand German; reading and writing soon followed. When there was no special German class for me I did sit in on English classes and I remember trying not to laugh at the other children’s pronounciation of words (the funniest I recall was someone saying ‘klotzes’ for the word ‘clothes’). I liked my English teacher, who was also my homeroom teacher and he’d sometimes wink at me when things didn’t go so well in English class.

Within two years my German was fluent enough for me to attend a German “Gymnasium” and I spoke German like a German – I guess that’s when I became trilingual.  I lived in Germany for six years but have been gone now for almost 30 years and I know my German has deteriorated since I left, for lack of use! The Dutch think I speak German fluently but I can hear my Dutch accent coming through now and I know I make grammatical mistakes that I know I never used to make in the past. I find myself doubting and pausing before I speak. However, I still understand German like I do English and Dutch and that is something, right? Also, thanks to my German blogging friends here I do feel like it is all coming back to me more and more now.

People used to marvel at us being able to speak three languages fluently in my family, they always used to ask what language we/I dream in. To be honest, I can’t tell you, I just know that I understand all my dreams perfectly. 🙂 I do know that when I speak, I sometimes prefer to mix up my languages. The more tired I am, the more difficult it is for me to just stick to one language. The basis tends to be Dutch, with a lot of English thrown in and some German words here and there. By now my husband is very used to me switching between two and sometimes three languages within one sentence! I suspect I do this in my dreams as well.

Of all the three languages I speak, English is my absolute favourite. When I was in German school I kept up my English skills by writing my diary in English and by voracioulsy reading English-language books, thanks to Mr. Scott! Mr. Scott was a family friend, a member of the American Forces stationed in Frankfurt am Main and he gave us his library card to the American library there! We used it faithfully every Sunday afternoon after church until we were busted a few years later because Mr. Scott had by that time left Germany… At 16 my English was still good enough for me to be able to attend an international school in The Netherlands on a scholarship. I finished my schooling there and then went on to Dutch universities and colleges.

So, here I am now, still living in The Netherlands. I have never lived in an English speaking country (save for a 4.5 month internship in England in the early 1990s) yet English remains my favourite language. In my free time I only read English language books, my husband and I constantly watch the BBC, and I like to write and when I do it is always in English. And there’s the rub… although my English is good, it never feels good enough. I think that by now my Dutch writing is better than my English (due to all the work-related reports, letters, etc. that I have had to write over the years). I am good in both languages, but perfect in neither!


Jane Austen’s writing table – I wish I could be that good!

They say that if you want to write, you should do it in your mother tongue, which for me officially would be Dutch, I guess. It’s not the tongue of my heart, though… So, I now have this blog – in English! And I write silly fanstasy love stories – in English. Yet the thing I really want to write is very Dutch and should be in Dutch… but will I have the patience to actually write in Dutch?

As much as I love to write I don’t have much patience to go back over my words again and again and edit them. I do it for a blog post – but for a whole book? I’d be sick of it! Yet my fingers are starting to itch to write this Dutch thing and I can’t wait too long to do it as it would also involve using my mother as a reference (and she’s 80 now). But will I have the patience to do this if I have to do it in Dutch? I hardly have the patience in English! And believe me, doing it in English is not practical, I’d constantly have to be translating and that doesn’t help with the flow of writing… Dilemmas, dilemmas. Sometimes it would be easier to only be fluent in one language…

In the meantime, I guess what I really need to do is to just start writing this thing… Maybe I can write it in two languages with some mixed-in German words, just like in my dreams?


13 thoughts on “The downside to being bilingual…

  1. Wow, I’m jealous lol. I wish I could speak three languages fluently. Even two would be nice! That was pretty interesting 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being bilingual. I learnt French at school but have only ever been able to speak it badly and in a very limited fashion. My written French was always better than my spoken. I also learnt German briefly but that was always beyond me. You mention that your English never feels good enough and yet to me, a born and bred Brit, it reads like it was written by a native. In fact, very few native speakers can write perfect English, me included. We can’t even speak perfect English so I don’t think you have any cause for concern. As for the thing you want to write in Dutch – I guess it’s a “suck it and see” thing. You won’t know if you can do it until you try. I say go for it 🙂

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  3. I’d like to be bilingual. Actually when I spend time reading/listening/talking English or Spanish, I dream in a foreign language. That’s quite funny…
    My daughter used to be bilingual (creole/French) when she was a little girl and that helped her a lot to learn another language.

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  4. Ich bin schwer beeindruckt! Ich kann leider nur eine Sprache gut, Französisch und Italienisch ein bisschen und Englisch – tja das kannst Du hin und wieder lesen wie schlecht es ist! Ich wünschte ich könnte die Sprachen so gut wie Du, aber meine Fähigkeiten liegen wohl eher bei den zahlen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think, too, the fact that Dutch, English, and German are relatively similar languages probably complicates things somewhat. In any case you have no reason to be embarrassed in any way about your English. And I would totally go for the writing project in Dutch. If you’re worried, someone can always proof / correct it for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, especially Dutch and German have many similarities, so as I speak a lot of the one I get insecure about the other.
      Yeah, I’d always need to find someone to proof anything I write anyhow, should I seriously consider publishing something officially.

      Liked by 1 person

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