The perks (or not) of being bilingual

In the last 10 years or so that I have been working in the performing arts industry, I've often mulled over the effect that being bilingual has had on my career. I've been fortunate enough to have been employed in theatre, on screen and behind a microphone in both French and English and overall I feel that it has benefited my working life immensely. However, there often comes a time when, for casting purposes, you're being asked to define yourself as one or the other. I remember having to fill in a questionnaire about being bilingual once when I was at school and one question asked in what language I answered the phone: French or English. My real answer wasn't an option: both. I used to say a weird mixture of "Hello/Allo" that was sort of between English and French, so as to respond in both languages simultaneously.

This might seem like a curious idiosyncrasy of mine but it illustrates a point: people are often reluctant to accept that you may actually be equally adept in both languages. Claiming to be bilingual can sometimes prove a double-edged sword - being perceived as not-quite-as-authentic as someone who may be purely fluent in one language.

Now, before I elaborate further, let me just explain what I mean by bilingual, as well as a brief description of my background. In this context, I intend bilingual to mean not only completely fluent but also having a native accent in both languages. This last point is the crux of the matter really, as there are far more people capable of speaking more than one language than there are people who sound native in them.

My personal story is that I grew up in London, to French parents (well technically one French parent and one American, but both spoke French at home). I learnt French first and only started speaking English at nursery, from the age of about two and a half. Subsequently, I attended a French school in London, from the age of 4 to 17. Therefore French was spoken both at home and at school for most of my formative years. English was restricted to certain friends and of course exposure through living in the country (though mainly through TV!). I then went to university in the UK and have worked mostly in this country.

There are of course many other truly bilingual people in the world (certainly a large portion of those who attended my school for instance) but relatively few in the performing arts. This brings me on to my main point: how to market oneself. In the voiceover world for example, when approached by (or approaching) a client, I will usually describe myself as either French or English, whichever relates to the job at hand, and not mention the other. I have no doubt that calling myself bilingual would weaken my position: I would not seem as authentic. As far as I'm concerned, this is not a lie: I am French. I am also British. I hold both passports. I've spent extended periods of time in both countries. I speak both languages fluently and anyone hearing me speak one of them would believe it was my mother tongue.

I understand the scepticism. In fact, I'm guilty of it myself. When someone claims to be multilingual, I always initially doubt it, and seek out proof by listening to examples of their work in all their languages. My scepticism is mostly validated: the accent in one of the languages will often be slightly less than perfect. However, I always make the effort to listen and not disregard out of hand, and I hope (maybe naïvely) that others would do the same.

The good news is, the act of writing this piece has helped me come to a conclusion about how to market myself. In targeted, personalised marketing, I will carry on saying that I am either French or English, depending on the potential client. This means that my branding material has to be language-neutral as it were (i.e. not particularly referencing one or the other) so it could be used in any context. I feel that my website however can afford to show off my being bilingual, since I hope anyone interested enough to doubt it will make the effort to listen to my samples as proof.

I would say embrace your uniqueness but stay pragmatic: sometimes economy of information can work to one's advantage - something I should have paid heed to before writing this extensive blog post!