How is it to be multilingual?

Viktoriia Slyvka

I have come up with the word multilingualism quite recently, and actually, I have not paid attention to it immediately. But the point is that exactly this word has been related to my life since my childhood. So, when I started thinking more seriously about this topic, I realized that I want to share my impressions with you.

Multilinguals – are people who speak more than one language or understand at least one more language besides their mother tongue (active use in everyday life is not obligatory). The main idea of this term is an intersection of known languages in a person’s life environment even if the foreign language comes from TV or radio. Thus, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Belarussians, some Lithuanians and other Baltic nations – congrats! Intuitive knowledge of your mother tongue and Russian already makes you bilingual. Sounds cool, does it not?

What stages of language learning are natural?

My fate made me interact with a few more incredible speaking worlds: English, Lithuanian, and German, except for Russian, (which I got intuitively in my childhood, and my native Ukraine). Accordingly, these changes forced my brain to collapse and change the tactic of its actions in certain situations. I will try to explain. I was not proficient in foreign languages at school (teachers, sorry for the truth), and my parents, unfortunately, did not pay attention to this problem. As people say, I did not see the need and did not bother with learning. I realized that my so-called delay goes over limits in the 9th grade, so I got courage to change the situation and started getting into English. That year became the big X in my biography because I promised not to study English ever in my life and broke that promise in the same year.

I was faced with the learning of a foreign language in my conscious age, my brain was protesting as never before. I had to learn at a very fast speed, but, unfortunately, it did not turn out as fast as I wanted. My thoughts about the language being something overwhelmingly heavily learned slowed down my lingual snail, suggesting to take a rest every two ‘lesson-attempts’. Of course, there were tears (mom, thanks for your patience), self-despair, but there was progress too, and at the end of the 11th grade I could somehow speak.

Looking at this contradictory process now, I can say that I was doing better than I thought. My intellect which was used to one type of thinking passed an important stage, adaptation. This phase is really difficult as it requires the rebuilding of usual constructions of sentences, templates of phrases and, of course, it requires the study of a large number of vocabulary. This stage is even more difficult for adults. The problem is that mature people don’t just simply have to study new structures (as small kids do), but to REstudy them. The main point is not to give up. For example, let’s take two sheets of paper: the first one is blank, and the other has a professional painting drawn on. And now, I have a simple question: which sheet of paper it will be easier to draw a new painting on? For sure, on the first one. We will have to either erase the picture on the second sheet or cover it with white colour to prepare a new place for work. Furthermore, even if we erase it, or cover with a new white groundwork, there will still be marks of the previous drawing which we will have to work on and improve in the future (but we will talk about that later). That is why foreign language learning is so recommended at a young age nowadays (especially, till the age of 6-7). By introducing a new language to kids, we make them a favour. Such a lingual variety will not only develop children and facilitate the future learning of other foreign languages but will have a nice impact on career potential in 10 or 15 years.

After the 11th grade (in Ukraine, we have only 11 grades at school), my story only started, and a new obstacle was waiting for me on my lingual way. By chance, I entered VMU, which was and still is the best decision of my life. Here, I have already been obliged to speak English. And here is the hitch: I had already known the language; I had been used to its structure, and I had had the basic vocabulary, BUT before speaking, I needed to think a few seconds, to convince myself that I can do it, to stop shaking from fear of making a mistake, and only then I could say something. Of course, I exaggerate a little, but I want you to get the point. It was the second stage of my language learning – so-called practice and errors. The most difficult thing at this phase was a clarity lack: I often had a variety of answers to different questions, but sometimes I could not verbalize them in time. People improvise in a live speech, and I needed to get used to this process, so I often kept a silence, which was a huge mistake. Errors are a natural thing; they help to get new knowledge and improve it. Do not be afraid of mistakes. It is the condition of progress!

Now, I would like to go back to my example with papers. As I mentioned, when we erase a picture or make a new groundwork on it, we will still have to improve it and to work on ‘traces’ which are left after the previous painting. The same thing is when we learn a new language, and this is especially noticeable in the cognitive aspect. Again, I will try to explain. Since some phrases or structures of the native language, so to speak, are fixed in our thinking and have a special meaning for us, we are trying to say literally the same phrase in a foreign language which sometimes does not even exist or is very funny for native speakers. And no matter how long we are swoting these ‘special phrases’ in a foreign language, we still, accidentally, will make mistakes. In English, this tendency is the most frequent in a frame of phrasal verbs (verbs which consist of two or three word categories), for example, a phrasal verb – to depend on. In Ukrainian as in Lithuanian, this verb requires Genitive case (e.g. залежати від, priklausyti nuo), and we would say to depend from, but in English, this does not work. Thus, we draw a parallel between two words and think that they have the same meaning, but as a result, we get a funny phrase in practice. This is how our foreign thinking works. Of course, this is a very simple example; there are more interesting ones which are individual for every nation.

In general, this process is a part of all stages, but I would like to highlight it as the third one because only when we speak the language fluently, we start to correct our foreign thinking. I still remember the phrase of my tutor at school: “You do not create English sentences; you create Ukrainian sentences expressed in English.” The same idea I heard from my lecturer in Lithuania: “Stop thinking Ukrainian in English.” Therefore, I still try to identify my ‘stray Ukrainians’ (there are many of them in this text, I know) and anglicize them.

Viktoriia Slyvka. Photo by Леся Лупійчук

Is it easier to study every next language?

Without a doubt, it is. The study of the first foreign language is always the most difficult because it is a kind of shock for the brain. For years of communication, a brain becomes used to one way of thought expression, and when we show that it is possible to do it in another way, that it is possible ‘to change the wrapper of the candy’, it starts to protest. This is to go out of the comfort zone. It is the same as to run a marathon for a prepared runner, and to run it for the person who was lying on the sofa and watching “The Simpsons”. The difference is huge! The brain becomes more trained and ‘flexible’, so it does not respond to a new shock as it had done before. But do not forget, it responds!

In my case, the second foreign language was Lithuanian. It was a kind of challenge for me because at the same time I wanted to be focused on English and develop it. But somehow, step by step, I was becoming used to this double-pressure. Since Lithuanian belongs to the Slavic group of languages, I didn’t need that much time to get used to it (approximately half a year in comparison to almost 2 years with English). Furthermore, I started finding out Ukrainian words in Lithuanian speech later, so almost two centuries of common history, as you see, are noticeable even now. The funny fact is that the first impression of Lithuanian was that it sounds something like Polish and German. Now, I cannot imagine how I could hear something German or Polish in it. Lithuanian is unique! And that is why I like it.

I do not speak Lithuanian super fluently, but if somebody provokes me, I can answer not bad. Few friends of mine are still trying to speak me out and I am very thankful for that. In short, I would describe my learning of Lithuanian like this: firstly, you are completely lost; after you understand where the word starts and where it finishes; later you start to recognize a few words in speeches on the streets; when you start understanding a few words on posters and advertisements, it is a delight; but the funniest part is when you start understanding friends or lecturers, while they think you are a foreigner and do not understand them.

“Why do you study Lithuanian?”

My friends from Ukraine and some from Lithuania often ask me this question. Actually, I understand them: Lithuania is quite a small country, and there are only 3 million of you. But I simply like your language. Definitely, I have to work much on it still, but I like how my Lithuanian friends react when I say a few sentences with mistakes in Lithuanian. It is pure joy. For example, I would be extremely happy, if any foreigner comes to Ukraine and learns my language. So, I would like to be that foreigner in Lithuania while I have a chance. I am simply trying to be respectful. Furthermore, it is still developing.

What about German?

The situation with German is much more interesting. It started at school. As I said, I was not serious enough in my attitude to foreign languages, so I regret these times now. But we all make mistakes, so I am trying not to focus on this period of my life, but to focus on present progress.

German appeared in my life much earlier than English, yet when I started studying English, everything that was at least a little bit related to German disappeared finally. As usually, my fate decided to play with my ‘I do not want’ and ‘I do not like’, and made me come up with German face to face. At the moment, I am doing my Erasmus+ exchange in Cologne, Germany, and frankly speaking, it is amazing! It is such a priceless experience that I would stay here for a few more semesters. From one side, it would be easier for me with the previous knowledge of German, but from the other side, I am so happy that I am studying it here among Germans. Surprisingly for me, I did not feel shocked after I came here, although I was preparing for it. Probably, this happened because I had been familiar with the language before. I recognize many words and structures which were learned at school, so I consoled myself that I was not that bad of a student during my time at school. In general, I have already started speaking, and I understand much, so I would allocate myself on the second stage of those listed by me earlier.

Viktoriia Slyvka. Photo by Леся Лупійчук

Language learning and mentality

I have mentioned that foreign languages develop humans. Yes, it is a cliché, and everyone has heard it many times, but it is very truthful. I would just add one point which you probably also have heard before, but it is still important: if we learn the language in an environment which provokes us to learn it, the effect is incredible. It is not simply related to the language proficiency which you get as a result; you acquire one more important quality from such types of learning which I noticed during my experience. Each nation or group of nations is distinguished by its special feature of behaviour. Accordingly, when we live among these nations, we pick up these features (because they are unusual or even unknown for us) and start practising them in personal life. For example, you, lithuanians, taught me to be calmer and more restrained, which is the main feature of your lifestyle which I noticed. In Germany, I noticed a completely different feature: both this nation and its language are sharp and vigorous, and people stand out by its rigour, correctness and punctuality. Thus, living among these two nations, I began to apply their styles of behaviour, but at the same time to combine them with my Ukrainian – openness, affection, simplicity. It is very interesting! Such training expands the patterns of our behaviour, and we are able to control our emotions in certain situations better.

And now, there will be a dramatic conclusion. Perhaps the information that I shared is known for many of you, but maybe there are people who will find it interesting or helpful. In my case, everything started with English, but in your case, it can be French, Spanish or Turkish. I just want you to understand the processes that are happening with you. Give yourself time, never give up, and I promise you – everything is possible!

Also, I want to mention that I just shared my experience. I’m sure that there are other opinions, and it is wonderful.