A British girl who grew up on a Spanish island and ended up in Belgium after a pit-stop in Scotland; describing Gemma Allen’s journey as linguistically interesting would be an understatement.
Born to British parents on a Spanish island, I grew up juggling the intricacies of two languages and two cultures. I wasn’t particularly fazed by this existence and happily stumbled through my Spanglish upbringing. Around the world, bilingual children are more common than monolingual children, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my brother and I thrived (with some linguistic confusion, mind you). We grew up loving roast dinners and Yorkshire pudding, morcilla dulce and papas arrugadas; we grew up with Father Christmas and Reyes Magos; Cockney and Canarian.
Life got trickier when the economy crashed, causing my mother and I to move to Scotland for a short-lived, rainy ten months when I was fourteen. For reasons involving a Belgian stepfather and a very stubborn fifteen-year-old me, we ended up in Ghent and I learnt to speak Dutch. And so, the rest is history.
To be honest, my first year in Belgium is a blur of extreme exhaustion and struggling to understand anything. Working out just one word felt like a triumph. Around the ten-month mark, something clicked, and from that point onwards, things only got easier. With a lot of effort and help, I managed to become fluent in the language and culture and before I knew it, I was even thinking in Dutch.
Although I was an avid reader and languages had always interested me, learning Dutch was what made me actively reflect on how I used them. My family commented on our language quirks throughout my life, but I finally saw what they meant.
According to my parents I had a split personality as a child. In Spanish, I spoke in a higher and louder tone, flailed my arms about like a madwoman – or should I say, a Spaniard – and rarely said please or thank you when ordering in a restaurant. My English personality had a lower tone; I had that typical British politeness and would never dream of swearing, even though it’s a widespread Spanish habit. It’s been said before – being bilingual or multilingual is more than just speaking in different tongues: there are different codes of conduct, perspectives and humour. This means adapting to every situation and seamlessly editing behaviours to fit; it means being bicultural. However, being bicultural or multicultural isn’t always seamless. As a confused Spanglish child, I would always ask for ‘my baby spoon blue’, and it took me a while to hear the difference between geel and geil in Dutch – if you know, you know. I have sworn in English on several occasions where it was not appropriate, and I almost got punched for trying to kiss a Scottish classmate on the cheek.
Growing up on a touristy island, if idyllic, wasn’t always ideal. Brits abroad don’t have the best reputation, and my brother and I weren’t always thrilled to be associated with them. Needless to say, your mother ordering polla (look it up) instead of pollo at a restaurant was just about the most embarrassing thing imaginable to a tween. My brother was called ‘Check Mate’ by his classmates thanks to his British name that no one could pronounce, and I was called ‘Egg Yolk’ as a result of mispronouncing my own name in Spanish at a young age – the name stuck. But our childhood was colourful and fun because of these incidents, not despite them.
An unfortunate side-effect of learning a new language, I mean really learning it, is that another language tends to suffer, at least temporarily. My already meagre French took a hit and my Spanish faded into the background, ever-present, but belonging to another part of my life. I think most trilingual people will also agree that you are a little different in every language. Each one unlocks certain parts of you, according to how well you speak it, the cultural norms tied to it and simply how the language itself is built. While my Dutch was creating a new sense of identity in me, a part of me was becoming dormant. As my Dutch improved and my roots here grew stronger my sunny childhood was overshadowed, almost as though it belonged to someone else. That’s not a morbid reflection on my new life in the least, simply an observation that often leads to nostalgia.
My languages have taken me far, not only geographically, and I know they will continue to do so. Being raised bilingually was the best head start I could get in life and I’m sure my parents can confirm that it was also quite entertaining for them.
Blue Lines concludes:
Gemma is going places. With her radiant, enthusiastic personality and natural ear for languages, we believe she can conquer the world. Thank you for the successful internship, Gemma. We’ll see each other again soon, that’s for sure!