As Bilingual As Baltimore

Not too long ago, I was replying to an email sent by a friend. She had asked me whether the Tinks were going to be bilingual and I explained that as both Janne and I are generally a little rusty in the Danish department (mor is way better), we’d do our best to help them be as bilingual as possible. Except, because I was using Dragon and we were still getting to know each other, what appeared on my monitor was “as bilingual as Baltimore”. Given the context, it seemed fitting.

After 24 years in Canada, we don't use Danish very much anymore. Janne was nine and I was a month from 20 when we arrived in Canada. We were both immersed in speaking English in school/university, then with friends and then in work and love, so we find it easier to express ourselves in English, our Danish being hopelessly outdated. I think (and dream) in English and I'm pretty sure Janne does too. Of course, there is the weird Danglish we speak when around mor - a mad jumble of English and Danish, strung together in a way that is perfectly sensible to the three of us, yet renders any witnesses hopelessly confused.

But here's the thing. Janne and I aren't exactly rusty when it comes to speaking our mother tongue. Plop us down in the company of Danish people and within a very short time, our fluency starts increasing by leaps and bounds. It’s as if being around the language opens up a door within and it all comes back to us. Admittedly, the first day or so, our companions laugh their arses off at our – get this – English accent.

The same thing happens to me when I watch a Danish movie. When I watch The Celebration (which is awesome and will seriously mess with your mind) or Italian For Beginners (also very good), I can't think in English. For about half an hour or more, depending on when I am next exposed to English, all of me is Danish. And then, after a brief conversation with a Canadian, English becomes dominant yet again. My theory is that when you’re bilingual, the different languages exists in layers.

It's the only way I can explain the flips. I literally feel like some switch is pushed inside my brain and the layers exchange depending on the context. Although there is some overlap (see above re: Danglish), mostly, they muscle each other out of the way, one overshadowing the other. English, by the way, is much more insistent than Danish, but perhaps that's because it's in the majority in the place we live.

I miss Danish. I miss speaking eloquently in Danish - my vocabulary is about a quarter-century old and there are limits to how eloquent you are at 20. Last year, when my cousins came for a visit, it became apparent just how out of date we are. We learned a lot of new slang, but I'm pretty sure we've all forgotten most of it by now.

Having Poul here for his annual visit nudges Danish to the forefront yet again and I have enjoyed a tremendously. However, after two weeks, I’m hopelessly jumbled and have trouble speaking either language fluently. I speak Danish to Canadians and English to Danes (which doesn’t matter quite as much, as the Danes involved speak both languages).

I hear that the optimal time for teaching children to be bilingual is up to 4 years old. I think we need more Danish movies to keep it alive for the Tinks. And to unrust my sister and I.

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