Being bilingual has many advantages but also a few disadvantages. The most prevalent one is thinking of a word in the wrong language and not being able to translate it in your head fast enough. When talking to someone who doesn’t know I’m bilingual, I always get the feeling that they think I’m slightly dim-witted.
Connected to this, is having two sets of grammatical rules in your head. Writing as much as I do, I’m constantly confronted with the question of which rules apply to which language.
Prepositions and more
A simple example: In Dutch you sit in the train but in English you sit on the train. I know this, but sometimes if I think too much about it, I start to doubt which preposition is used in which language. First both sound correct, then neither and before I know it, I can’t write in either language.
And it’s not just prepositions that differ. Where one language uses a comma, the other language will demand a semi-colon or full stop. Dutch has many solid compounds and English usually has open compounds. But then there are the exceptions in both languages and the doubt sets in again. And the list of slight differences goes on and on…
Last week I learned that even the way the languages construct their sentences differ. It was a real eye-opener. Normal sentence structures in English have end-focus. In other words, the most important and new information is placed at the end of the sentence. Dutch sentences, however, don’t often follow this pattern, and instead have the focus at the beginning, as it’s this part of the sentence that has the most impact on a Dutch reader.
I now understand why I would see texts where the sentences were grammatically correct but just sounded so wrong… so Dunglish.
Sentence length also differs. Good Dutch writing has short, compact sentences. In English a well written sentence should usually have an average of 15 to 20 words, although the length should vary throughout the text. A translated Dutch text will therefore sound choppy and even childish if the sentence length is not altered.
Mixing it up
I realise that when writing in Dutch, I use the English technique of end-focus and when writing in English I’m often inclined to write short, compact sentences. Things I should keep in mind when writing.
And I’m sure for bilinguals with other language combinations there are other things to watch for.