How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

“Do you dream in multiple languages? And, when you think, do you first translate from one language to another?” my friend once asked me. It wasn’t the first time someone wondered about that, and it certainly wasn’t the last as I am trilingual.

After so many years of living in the U.S., it’s sometimes hard for others to notice my Dutch and Polish background. Some hear faint accents; while others can’t quite place where in America I might be from (the Midwest seems a popular guess). Born and raised in The Netherlands, I grew up in a multilingual household with a Polish mom and a Dutch dad.

Sometimes languages feel effortless or innate, and on other occasions, we may feel lost when learning a new language.

Even before I was born, my parents decided that they would ‘immerse’ me in Dutch and in Polish. They felt it important to teach their languages, as a way to stay connected to both backgrounds. Despite having mastered their own foreign languages (Polish for my dad, and Dutch for my mom), my parents were still simultaneously teaching each other along the way – they communicated in English when they first met.

We would often pack our Volkswagen up and drive 13+ hours to visit my grandparents in Poland. I have fond memories of my grandpa picking me up in The Netherlands and us road tripping back to Poland and seeing the passing landscapes from the passenger window. Between the visits, my mom encouraged me to speak Polish whenever possible – even if exchanging just a few words per day – to keep up with the language.

There was a brief period when I refused to speak Polish, and while she would say something, I would reply in Dutch saying, “the other kids at school can’t understand me when I speak Polish.” Through humor and patient persistence, mom persevered through that minor ‘linguistic resistance,’ and I’m thankful she did.

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

If not for her efforts, I would miss out on a beautiful language, on the chance to connect with a culture of warm, welcoming people, on the opportunity to embrace enriching traditions and a deep history, and above all, I would miss out on the chance to be truly Polish.

Though I’ve considered America home for almost fifteen years, I strongly identify with my European roots. When we talk over the phone, we speak in Dutch or Polish, or occasionally even a funny combination of Dutch, Polish and English when the words briefly escape.

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity
How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity.

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

Even when not in Europe, I seek out Dutch and Polish culture. I have indulged in Polish comfort foods in Greenpoint, Brooklyn – though nothing will compare to the smell of grandma’s freshly made homemade chicken soup, or her sauerkraut and mushroom pierogies. I dream of bike rides through the Dutch countryside passing by cattle and vast fields, even in the pouring rain. I remember the friendly spirit of Polish communities, of strangers smiling and warmly greeting each other, of family dinners with second cousins and distant relatives that continue deep into the night.

Languages connect us – they allow us express how we feel, they let us establish common ground with others, and in travel, they help us overcome barriers when we immerse ourselves.

I reflect on family get-togethers in Holland over holidays, wearing all orange for Queen’s Day (or now King’s Day) and cheering on the national soccer team during the World Cup, and enjoying Dutch delicacies like stroopwafels, Old Amsterdam cheese, and kroketten (meat-based snacks in a breadcrumb roll). I vividly remember architectural details of Krakow and Amsterdam, and admire the artistry and history behind them. I can picture bustling sidewalk cafes in both countries, where people enjoy each other’s company and take a break from their busy lives to eat and talk. And, to this day, I consider it a privilege and great joy to share stories about traditions and to teach others a few words in Dutch and in Polish.

Languages are enriching parts of identity, and they affect our daily lives – whether people acknowledge it or not. Sometimes languages feel effortless or innate, and on other occasions, we may feel lost when learning a new language. The words are there, but they may not directly translate or briefly we’re thinking in “one language over the other.” Language will also evolve as new trends appear.

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity

But, what remains at the core, is identity, and feeling like we belong to a group who speak our language. Languages connect us – they allow us express how we feel, they let us establish common ground with others, and in travel, they help us overcome barriers when we immerse ourselves.

To me, identity isn’t necessarily defined by geography. Identity is a lifelong part of you reinforced by those closest to you, by the memories that reflect your cultural upbringing and values, and by the experiences you have that continue to help you grow.

How Being Trilingual Shaped My Identity top photo credit: Jordi Escuer 

About Nicolette Orlemans

Nicolette OrlemansNicolette grew up in a bilingual (Dutch/Polish) home in The Netherlands. Nicolette is currently based in New York City, where she works as a communications strategist. When she is not working, Nicolette loves to travel, and has visited much of Europe, the United States, and Egypt.

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