Bilingualism: does it come and go?

Actually, I speak three lanuages (English, French, and Italian, and I can read written Spanish).

I’ve had dreams in French and Italian, and somone once told me that it was a sign I had truly learned the language. I’ve spoken French since I was a toddler (my mother is French-Canadian), took courses in French thoughout my schooling (not just French language courses, but stuff like science, history, etc.), and have worked in French-only workplaces since I moved to Montreal. I can speak jouale with the best of them.

I’m just wondering if mental capacity has something to do with being fluent in other languages. Some of you might know I’ve been on heavy painkillers for the past couple of days (broken rib - don’t ask). I really don’t know whether or not I would be able to speak French if I had to right now. Does that innate ability diminish according to your mental state? God, if I had to speak Italian now, it would be a complete disaster. What part of my brain is being affected that I feel I can’t compose a phrase in French?

  • s.e.

I’m conversant rather than bilingual in French and Spanish, but have always found myself more conversant in both those languages when I’m in a diminished state of mental capacity (i.e. drunk). I always assumed it’s the not-caring-about-making-an-eejit-of-myself factor.

Pfft, sometimes I dream in French and I’m annoyed that my dream-self speaks much better French than I do.

I, too, speak German better when I’m drunk. This is probably due to getting wasted on more occasions than I care to remember last summer in Germany - so when my brain gets that familiar, fuzzy-happy-drunk feeling, the Deutsch just spews out.

(My roommates can always tell when I’m drunk, because I start pacing in the kitchen and yelling things like “Scheiße!”)

Actually, it’s true that my French (ou jouale, if I need to speak it) flows better when I’m moderately drunk. However, I can still hold my own when sober. It’s just that right now, because of the massive painkillers I’m on, I feel so brain-dead. The words are still there, and I could probably access them, but I’d rather not.

Like I said, I have a francophone mother, was speaking French since I was a toddler, went to school in French, moved to a French-speaking (in many cases) city, and have had many French-only jobs.

I’m just wondering if it can fizzle out for a while, then come back. The way I feel right now, even English is a bit of a struggle for me. I feel like Jodie Foster in “Nell.”

  • s.e.

I’m not bilingual, but I can more or less hold a converstation in German, French and Italian. I’ve found that sometimes I just can’t come up with the words for a certain language for no apparent reason. There was one night when I was trying to work on a French composition and I’d sit there: “Frühstück?” No… “Colazione?” No… to the dictionary “Argh, I know that, petit déjeuner!” Admittedly I was pretty exhausted at that time of night, but I have no idea why I could come up with German and Italian, but not French. Maybe the demons were just mocking me because I had work to do in French…

I’m not bilingual, but speak decent Spanish. I can hold up my end of a conversation fairly well if it’s entirely in Spanish, but I can’t switch back and forth – so much for ever becoming an interpreter.

I used to dream in Spanish when I was speaking it on a day-to-day basis, and I even had a dream in Latin when I was in a staged reading of one of Plautus’ plays. (Not a very sophisticated dream – it consisted mostly of me trading insults with one of the other cast members – but still pretty cool.)

And alcohol definitely improves all of my language capabilities, although it has the unfortunate side effect of making me think I speak foreign languages better than I really do, so I try to do silly things like holding a conversation in German. (Not a good idea when you’ve only studied the language for two years, ten years ago.)

I’m not so sure about that. When I visited Romania 8 years ago, I had dreams in Romanian–but had no idea what anyone was saying. I just had the cadence, sound, and “song” of the language in my head.

Obviously that isn’t what you meant, but it aroused an amusing memory in me.