Can You Be Too Bilingual?

I was born in the United States. When I was two years old, my family and I moved to Denmark. My dad was American and my mom is Danish, so it’s easy to see why I consider both English and Danish to be my native tongues. Growing up in a truly bilingual home was what propelled my interest in languages and my passion for creative word compilations.

At home, we spoke “Danglish”, a language all our own. A majority of the words we used were Danish, but the ones that were too hard for my dad to pronounce were substituted with their English equivalents. Our parents spoke to us in either or both; whichever was easiest at that particular moment. As young children, our minds were pliable and easily impressionable, and we quickly became fluent in “Danglish” as well.

My mother would speak to us in English when we had friends over, and when she needed us to send them home. My dad would try his best at Danish when we were out in public, but strangers would speak to him in English out of the goodness of their hearts. His American accent was so thick that he sounded more like John Wayne in an old Western, than someone trying to speak Danish. It must have been hurtful for him that people didn’t understand when he spoke Danish, and instead thought he was speaking English.

I always spoke in Danish, except for the occasional English words. Some of the words we used in English were “trash”, “cereal”, and “orange juice”, and my mother often felt the need to yell “Cut it out!” when I had friends over. Danish kids did not know what it meant, but I knew those words were my mom’s last and final warning.

In our family, we switched between the two languages as if they were one. Our sentences were mixed, our thoughts might have been jumbled, and we really only made sense to each other. Our favorite dinnertime activity was to come up with jokes and puns by mixing the two languages. I also believe we were only funny to ourselves; no one else would have understood our sense of humor, or even what we were saying. Our Danish became “Danglish” and our English became “Danglish”. The lines were muddied and crossed constantly.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I am now a professional translator working on blog posts about gambling. I am reading the English text and then proofreading my Danish translation. All of a sudden, my brain has switched back to the days of our “Danglish”. I am no longer able to read a sentence and determine which language I just read. I fully understand the text, but the two languages have become one. Once again, the lines have been muddled and, in my mind, I am reading “Danglish”. And, so, I wonder: is there such a thing as being too bilingual?