The difficulties of being multilingual

Lost in Translation: The difficulties of being multilingual

Today’s blog comes from Tsveta Milanova, a Bulgarian who grew up in international communities in the Middle East. Currently living in the Netherlands, Tsveta’s interests range from an obvious affinity for languages to journalism, finance, and marketing. 


Words, words, words

One of the most basic and appreciative forms of communication is language.  It is a platform we use daily to express ourselves. We hear it. We read it. We speak it.  The problem is when we are familiar with several languages and we know the expression in one language but not in the other. 

Many things are lost in translation, or you realize that writing a word in one form changes the whole meaning of the sentence. When talking to a friend, I wanted to say “I want it” but in Dutch apparently one cannot say “it”; the closest expression that is grammatically correct is “dat wil ik ook” but this completely shifts the emphasis from “I” to “dat” (it) and adds “ook” (too). Or the homophones in English: practice vs practise; there vs they’re vs their, among many others.  I know the “there” case is ridiculous to be given as an example but many people struggle with English. The “practice” example recently caused me an interesting situation as the two languages that I have in common with my parents has an almost invisible distinction and thus making it hard in the context to choose which one to put as both are correct. We spent half an hour on argumentation only to realize it does not really matter how to write it but just to give a nuance to emphasize a point.

Although officially my first language is Bulgarian, I grew up speaking English; French became the language I express myself in when I want to add more feeling to something or simply to sound posh; I use it rarely for the basics. Since I live in the Netherlands, I stick to basic Dutch. Bulgarian is the language I speak at home with my parents.  Arabic and Russian are languages I understand to some extent but cannot express myself in them so I only use them when a situation really calls it. Within the past century, more and more books have been translated into different languages, ideas are exchanged much quicker, and more people are ending up with children from at least two different nationalities. I am a one-culture child, now adult, but I grew up with a multinational community so languages were vital to me. 

Girl punching boy to express herself

Ever struggled to express yourself properly in another language?


Express yourself

I know a lot of people who speak 6 languages very fluently, others fake the fluency very convincingly, as for the rest of us, if we are honest to ourselves, we speak languages according to the purpose we need them and thus with a different degree of fluency.  In a globalizing world, it is hard to even be bilingual as everyone already speaks at least two languages. So, most of us opt for another language and then add another one.  The one disadvantage of speaking multiple languages is having a hard time figuring out how to ultimately express yourself: you spend more time thinking about the optimal sentence structure, which word best fits in the context, going through all synonyms in your mind, and if you have a hard time thinking of a more appropriate word, looking it up in the dictionary if available right now. On the other hand, knowing several languages gives you more advantages like accessing information much quicker than the masses. 

Language diversity is a beautiful thing and I urge you to gain as much knowledge as possible so that you can access the original information and then maybe the translated version to see how words are lost in translation and emphasis is shifted on different things.  Besides, you become a bit more immune to word propaganda and information asymmetries.  As Roger Bacon had said, “La connaissance des Langues est la porte de la sagesse ” – Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom. 


Follow Tsveta and her multinational adventures on Instagram at @tsvetamilanova


Jan 31, 2017 by Viktoriya

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I am starting to believe that also multilingual skills start to be less appreciated form employer. Your thoughts?

Learning a new language expands one's mental capacity and ability to feel empathy with another race of people. People who speak just 1 language only have a 1 dimensional view of the world.

Informative post! Thanks

That's true and I have sometimes the same problem with some specific translations. Of course you can give them an approximate meaning but not always is 100% correct. Anyhow, I use to read lot of mistakes concerning to homophones, but not only by students but also by native speakers.

Nice article,

I couldn't agree more! But I find it very hard to perfect languages the older I get ... I lived ın turkey for a year and a half and managed to learn only phrases that were necessary for my daily routine and "dinner table" conversations. Same with Spanish... Just at some point, the language level I knew was enough to communicate on the daily basis and I had stoped learning more. Well but I guess learning languages is a struggle to everyone who is not born bilingual :)

The struggle to try to speak in a language when the words that come first in your mind are from different languages. I thought I was the only one, apparently there are others.

True. I sometimes realise I speak my native language in a different way compared to people who are not multilingual. I sort of ''import'' concepts and sayings from other languages and cultures, and incorporate them into my native language in a ''natural'' manner.

At the end of the day, or brain takes many things. E.g. After being living an English speaking country, I say "insano" in Spanish. It comes from "insane." We copy and take many things from the languages we know. Anyway, it is important to focus upon what you do in order to avoid ambiguities or mistakes.

Yes it is difficult to be multilingual.

"Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom." - very true!


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