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Bilingual Hearts Are Trump
September 26, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Bilingual Hearts Are Trump

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.

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