The joys of a multilingual environment

With less than three weeks to go before I leave for London on a one-year course at university, I’m starting to realise that there’s one thing I’ll definitely miss about Brussels: its multilingual aspect. Though in London I’ll have to tackle a wider array of English accents than I have ever encountered so far, which in itself will be quite a challenge, it’s not quite the same.

Come to think of it, compared to a multilingual environment, studying & working in a monolingual environment must be boring.
Have I become European (and/or Belgian) to the point of looking down upon “lesser people” such as the Brits and the Americans, who rarely have to venture outside their linguistic comfort zone?

Here are some of the challenges that differ greatly:

Linguistic jousting

In a purely monolingual environment, linguistic jousting has one single dimension: you use fancy vocabulary to destabilise your opponent and thus win the adoration of the crowd (slight exaggeration, especially there will seldom be any onlookers).
In a multilingual environment, two more dimensions can appear:

  • if you are having a casual conversation with someone, you may decide to show your prowess by speaking in a second tongue (and depending on the linguistic background of the person in question, he or she may be either confused [if he/she doesn’t really understand] or impressed [unless you are really bad at the language])
  • if you intend to do true linguistic jousting, you may use words in many languages to ensure victory over a confused foe

Now, read again the first part, about a monolingual environment. Doesn’t it seem boring next to these two new dimensions?


Imagine walking over to a store anywhere in the world and ordering something in your language. If you’re an English speaker, it works a lot more often than if you speak another language.
Well, in Europe, there are a great number of places where multilingual stores have become the norm, especially on the internet, whose cross-border nature implies that you’re bound to stumble upon another language very early off (if you want to have any success in the European market, among others).

I’m actually working on an e-commerce website for photography right now, and having to make it trilingual is both fun and a challenge: there are some terms I don’t know in French/English/Dutch, and I have to make sure that every single item will appear in the right language.


No matter how multicultural London is, England itself is a very mono-cultural and closed place (Scotland appears to me as more open-minded). The English care only for the culture of the English-speaking world, and they generally restrict even that to the UK & the US. Just compare that to any smaller country (like Belgium!), and suddenly culture is in no way a homogenous concept.

I guess I’ll have to adapt, but I love being able to see two minutes of weird Flemish humour and then to switch to a boring French-speaking news channel.

The influence of difference

It’s probably similar to the phenomenon involving culture to some extent, but the inhabitants of larger countries are generally much more likely to think only of their country than inhabitants of smaller ones.
As such, comparison is not something that comes naturally.

This is a problem in my case, as I love comparison (a few classes touching upon the subject of Comparative Law confirmed this).
Comparison allows you to improve not only yourself but also your peers (well, not in each case – it’s easier to use differences to denigrate someone).

This means that you are not faced with the same blatant differences when working in a monolingual environment as when your work concerns many languages.


Well, there you go, a few thoughts as I start to set my sights on London.
I’m sure I’ll have enough material to report back on my adaptation troubles during the coming year.

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