by Charlotte Force
A lot of people have asked me what it's like to be bilingual.
It enables me to stretch my mind a little further, as if it's clay instead of tin. Tin is stiff stuff – hard to bend, but despite the fact that clay can dry out if you don't use it for a while, when exercised it's almost generous with its malleability.
Different people associate words with different things. When you say dog to 10 different people, 10 different images will pop into their heads: a playful afternoon, an echoing bark, a column of huskies mushing through the snow, a canine cuddle, a fear of bites, a ball of fur tumbling towards you…
This proves that the understanding of a word is founded on experience – we learn by association. Children learn the meaning of words by observing what’s around them. The fact that we all understand words a bit differently is proof of one true fact: it is the object that comes before the word. We often forget that; we are so used to language that it puppets us. We lose ourselves in a labyrinth of meaning, deluding ourselves into thinking that words came first.
When you're bilingual this haze is cleared, because you have two different words for most everything. In my case, the bridge is built between English and French – “running” is also “courir” and the unlabeled action that both words represent. These words are simply sounds and pictures trying as best they can to represent reality. To approximate their meaning in further words would be “to go quickly by moving the legs more rapidly than at a walking speed and in such a manner that for an instant in each step both feet are off the ground,” but these words do reality little justice. This is because the deeper truth lies in reality, not in words.
Being bilingual is seeing the world in this light – beholding reality without the tinted lens of language as a primary translation of thought. That is not to say that only multilingual people can perceive the world in this way – if I can explain this concept in a single language, then anyone speaking this language can understand it. Nonetheless, being bilingual opens up that perspective in a really big way.
All in all, I think being bilingual has allowed me to understand where my position in relation to language a lot better. I have come to understand the importance, beauty, and necessity of language. I know I could not function without being able to express my thoughts, and I am very grateful to my parents for raising me as a bilingual child and allowing me to understand this gift that is language.