Being bilingual is a pretty sweet deal. It is like having two houses when you are a child or having two parents who want to bribe you into liking them more than their counterpart, without the drama of divorce.
I am born and bred in London. The daughter of a Portuguese mother and English father and although it is not the most exciting mix I have ever heard it still garners sufficient attention to put me in the “exotic” brand of Brits. Despite the many benefits of which there are plenty, other aspects of being bilingual in an urban city quickly become boring and habitual. I hope some of the moments I have highlighted below might spark a ‘Hell yeah’ of solidarity from my fellow bilingual buds out there.
The funny thing about being bilingual or half something, half another is that you never quite seem to fit in no matter where you go. In Portugal, I am called undeniably ‘British’: the token ‘British cousin’, the ‘British expert’, the pale Londoner. In England, I am perpetually ‘foreign’ as my uni friends call me. “When did you come here?” has become my friendship group’s favourite joke; a question asked in pure innocence in early days of friendship at university prior to realizing I was born and raised in England. It has since become a ‘thing’.
Another question or conversation starter that I hear a lot is “Where are you from?”. This is fine and completely warranted, apart from the fact that people always seem to ask this when I am simply not in the mood to have conversation with them or when I am trying to be incognito. Apparently something about my face sends the signal “WARNING: not 100% British”.
A craze I have never quite understood is the whole swearing in a foreign language thing. Perhaps that is because I don’t swear much in any language. Either way, you can rest assured that as soon as someone finds out you can speak another language, the follow up will be “can you teach me how to swear in [insert language here]?” NO.
One of the most wonderful things about living in London as a bilingual is the myriad opportunities for connecting with other people. My favourite way to do this? Public transport. Public transport brings together all walks of life, classes, cultures and races in the sweaty, dingy, heavily-polluted air of the underground. I do not believe you can say you are true Londoner until you have stood armpit to face with a middle aged city banker questioning the meaning of life. My favourite thing to do on public transport though is to eavesdrop on the poor, unsuspecting Brazilian or Portuguese souls. Some magnificent snippets of dialogue I have heard recently include, but are not limited to:
Man 1: “She’s pretty hot. Should I get her number?” Man 2: “Maybe you should try to go for some eye contact first bro…Hmm actually she looks quite invested in that book. I’m not sure it is going to work out mate.” True.
Woman 1: “I told him. I told him this would happen but what did he do? He went ahead and did it anyway. NO AWARENESS FOR MY FEELINGS.” Woman 2: “Well you married him. Deal with it.” Damn. Cold as ice.
Woman 1: “That girl’s shoes are gorgeous.” Woman 2: “Which one?” Woman 1: “The one with the dark hair, standing up. The high heels with the bows. Should I ask–” Me: ‘Hi. They are from Pierre Hardy”. Shock. Woman 1: “You’re Portuguese?! I never would have guessed. You don’t look it at all! AT ALL!” Ok…
Girlfriend: “I am so hungover. This is it. I am never going out with you and your English friends again. Those guys are absolutely crazy. English people can really drink.” Boyfriend: “Look, no one forced that vodka on you.” Girlfriend: “Ummm… yes you and that guy Jasper did? Boyfriend: “Omg! Oh yeah. Jasper’s crazy. He’s from that place where they drink a lot you know? Up North?” Girlfriend: “Leeds?” Boyfriend: “No. No. The other one.” Girlfriend: “Man Chester?” Boyfriend: “Yes! That’s it. Man Chester. Crazy place. Crazy people.” I am dying here.
As much as being bilingual can get boring in terms of how people approach you or attempt to compliment you: “Yes, I could tell by your olive colouring that you weren’t fully English”…really? Because I am fairly sure I am just as pale as you are right now, the benefits definitely outweigh the boredom.
Not only do bilinguals have the advantage of understanding a whole other group of people that frequent our streets, but we also have the option of flipping between languages at the drop of a hat. I know this can be extremely jarring for mere mortals, but it can be the most gratifying thing to be able to express yourself in one language, when the other doesn’t quite cut it. With my family I admit I am particularly guilty of this. We frequently flip between English and Portuguese to the confusion of everyone around us. It all begins very innocently: “Queres sair a jantar esta noite?” “Sim, onde estavas a pensar?” “Jamie Oliver’s?” “Ah boa! I love that place. Do you think we need to book?” And so it goes. By the time we come to, we must have been straddling the two languages for a good five to ten minutes. It is just selfish really. Que situação!
This youtube sketch sums this up perfectly!