Bilingual Hearts Are Trump

by Translation Guy on September 26, 2011

In this game of hearts we call life, the passion of the moment, whether love or hate or fear or sorrow, the cards fall where they may. Indeed, as the savant Kenny Rogers tells us, every hand is a winner, and every hand a loser.

Fair enough, but certainly bilinguals have a few extra cards to play, what with one language or another. But in those moments of passion, what linguistic suit will our bilingual throw down? Must it always be hearts, the language whispered from the lips of our mother, now tattooed on his/her bicep? Surely for those late to bilingualism, it would seem that the language of the cradle is the language of their passions. That at those emotional moments when the chips are down, and we are all in, hearts is the suit that must be played.

So we have this notion that the first language of our hearts is always trump and will win every trick. That when our anger or laughter or tears is brought forth, it has to be played in the linguistic hand we were first dealt. But bilingual players know that there are other cards to draw, and sometimes four to flush can come up with a full boat. (For you non-poker players, a bilingual full house beats a monoglot flush every time, which I will be happy to demonstrate at our next game.)

Temple University researcher Aneta Pavlenko thinks that bilinguals play all their cards, at least when it comes to expressing themselves. As reported by François Grosjean in his most excellent “Life as a Bilingual” blog for Psychology Today, Pavlenko proves “that the relationship between emotions and bilingualism plays out differently for different individuals and distinct language areas. Basically, it is too simplistic to suggest that late bilinguals have emotional ties only with their first language and no ties with their other language(s).”

How could it be otherwise? Each word in every language speaks its own special language to our hearts. One of the treasures of language acquisition in later life is the story that goes with each hard-earned word, the memory of when and how you learned it evoked like a madeleine dipped in tea. It is pleasant to sit with my family in the evening and hear the slap of each word played at the table, in whatever language will win the trick of a tease or a joke. How much more useful an accomplishment when the emotional chips are stacked high on the table, and hearts are to be played.

Thanks to François for turning me on to Emotions and Multilingualism, reviewed here.

And thanks to readers for playing this hand with me. Gotta run. Boxcar to catch. This next tune is for all who agree with me that life is a metaphor for Texas Hold-em.


  1. Jenn Mercer says:

    Thank you for writing about the pleasures of learning language later in life. I started studying French at 16 and somehow it found a deeper place in my heart than Spanish that I started studying at 7. I am often struck when translating by the experience of being able to visualize the exact circumstances in which I learned a word. Sometimes it is a classroom – my high school teacher wrote a silly poem about mushrooms on the board and I learned “champignon.” Sometimes it was from real life. I saw the word “caisse” hanging above the register of a store in France and realized its meaning. I don’t know how such a common word had escaped my knowledge before that point, but now I had it. I am sure that my brain would explode if I really had a specific scene for each individual word – but there are so many words that bring up vivid images.

  2. Sugar Bear says:

    I am fluent in 3 languages, and I will agree that the one I learned first as a child is the language of my heart, of my passions.

  3. Mike1767 says:

    Bilingualism is such a fascinating topic. Please write more about it.

  4. Marie Mack says:

    Maybe it simply has to do with the languages themselves. Spanish, Italian, French… aren’t they the ‘romantic’ languages??

    • Ken says:

      Bitte, liebchen…

  5. I like the topic you have picked, a lot could be written about it. But why so much card talk?

  6. In your other blogs you wrote about feeling like a different person when speaking different languages, so it makes sense that all languages, no matter when they are learned, would have an emotional connection.

  7. Kelly Ryan says:

    Language is the oral expression of how we feel and what we think. Which words we choose depends on our knowledge of the language and of its culture. When we do not know the words we surely cannot express ourselves fully and passionately.

    • Ken says:

      That is one of the big questions, maybe the biggest, in linguistics.

  8. Goldie says:

    Tried to read the review for Emotions and Multiingualism. Too much for me. Thanks for your summarized version, I like your card analogies.

  9. The language(s) you learn when young are learned out of necessity, ‘naturally’ (for lack of a better word) whereas those late acquisitions are a conscious, deliberate, rational process. It makes perfect sense that only the former would resonate more emotionally and with more passion with the indvidual.

  10. Jon Waters says:

    I think the brain is developed in our first language and works best with it. That’s not to say that we can’t learn other languages and be very good at thinking, talking, and writing in them. Even dreaming in other languages. But since our fist language is the one to make our initial pathways through the brain, I think it only makes sense that it is more special to us.

  11. Bilingual!?!? Try trilingual and then some! Half the time I don’t know what my wife is saying. She speaks English tome, but French at work, Slovak at her parents, and she hailed a taxi when we were in the Dominican Republic in Espanol! Of all of them, I think her birth language is the one closest to her heart.

  12. Vinnie says:

    Man I haven’e heard that song in ages! Actually it was the first song on learned on guitar in the sixth grade. Three chords and I still know them today. Thanks for posting the YouTube of the Gambler!

  13. I can see how a first language can be closest to ones heart, but in my case I learned some French later in life. It was very addictive to me to learn more and practice more. I even went to France to practice for a month. If I never speak it again my whole life it will still be very close to my heart.

  14. Ellie says:

    I wish I was bilingual. I have tried picking up other languages while living abroad, but it’s hard.

  15. Alice says:

    I can’t stand all these languages. I live in Florida and it seems most times I don’t even hear English being used. Frustrating.

  16. Frederick says:

    Bilingual full house? Monoglut flush? I feel like this is written in a different language.

    • Ken says:

      Sorry to deal a bad hand to all you non-poker players out there. Flushes will bust.

  17. Donald Green says:

    some jokes just aren’t funny in certain languages. I’m jealous of the ones who can tell the punch line how it should be told!

  18. Anke says:

    After graduating from the Gymnasium in Germany, I spent 10 years in the US, first at university and then working. Although I have been brought up monolingual and learned English “only” in school, when it comes to emotions, I express myself best in English, not in German! As a matter of fact, for the longest time after returning to Germany, I could not talk about my emotions in German at all?! To this day, when things get heated (both positively and negatively), I automatically switch to English, sometimes without even noticing it until somebody will point it out to me!
    My thesis has always been that my actual and emotional coming-of-age – leaving home, having to support yourself, serious relationships etc. – all happened in English, and because of that, my emotions are inexorably linked to that language.
    So in my case it has nothing to do with where I grew up or what emotions I might have had while learning any particular word. Just the whole set-up of maturing in one language instead of the other.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software