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EPA-EFE/ Ian Langsdon

Hilaria Baldwin, cucumber-gate, and why being bilingual is complicated

Hilaria Baldwin, wife of actor Alec, has recently been widely accused of faking Spanish heritage in what one reporter called a “decade-long grift where she impersonates a Spanish person”.

The press and social media are having a field day – numerous clips have been unearthed in which Baldwin appears to imply that she was born in Spain. What now seems clear is that she was born in Boston and originally named Hilary by her parents, and that these facts had previously been misreported – whether through genuine misunderstandings or intentional falsification.

Of particular interest, however, is the incensed response to the way in which Baldwin uses English. YouTube clips calling out her “fake” accent abound and an episode of a cookery show, in which she momentarily struggles to remember the word “cucumber”, has gone viral.

Baldwin does appear to speak Spanish flawlessly. Everything we know about second language acquisition indicates that in order to reach this level of proficiency, she must have spent considerable time – in all probability including her childhood – in a Spanish-speaking country. And this fact could go a long way towards explaining the observation that her English is sometimes tinged with a Spanish accent and that she has at times appeared to struggle to think of a word in English.

In the western world – and particularly in English-speaking countries – most people are convinced that it is natural to have one native language, which you speak like everyone around you. You might possibly (but not necessarily) speak one – or several – foreign languages as well, but not be native-like in those. In the English-speaking world, the latter is often regarded as a bit of a useless luxury

If (like Baldwin) you were born in an English-speaking environment and to English-speaking parents, the assumption is that English is and will always remain that single authentic native language. You will develop it in the same way as any monolingual would, and it will remain invariable for the rest of your life – irrespective of where you live most of the time.

This assumption is wrong – a Scot who moves to North America, for example, may find themselves the object of ridicule on visits back home because of their changed accent. The same can happen to anyone who moves to a country where an entirely different language is spoken.

My own research has demonstrated that many people living abroad are perceived by other native speakers to have a foreign accent in their native language, similar to that of foreign language learners. The younger you are when you begin speaking another language, the more pronounced the accent in your mother tongue is likely to be.

How strong this foreign accent is may fluctuate over time – it may be less pronounced after a visit to one’s native country and then gradually become stronger again. Anecdotally, it also appears that factors such as wellbeing and emotional states may influence how “foreign” you sound. Baldwin reports that she finds how strongly accented her English is depends on whether she is happy or upset and that’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.

Fumbling for words

Similarly, getting stuck on a word in one language to the extent that it blocks the other is very common. When two languages inhabit the same brain, every time we reach for a concept (for example, the notion of a cucumber), the word attached to this concept is activated to some degree in all of the languages we know.

We have to engage a neural control mechanism to ensure we say it in the right language. This control mechanism can sometimes fail us and we end up being unable to come up with the word we want.

Most people are prepared to accept and even expect any such phenomena – a foreign accent, word-finding difficulties, grammatical errors – as an inevitability in any foreign language learner. But at the same time they are adamantly stuck on the notion that a “native language” – one that you were exposed to from birth – must be resilient enough to withstand years or decades of coexisting in the same brain with another language.

This is not how languages and identities work. People do not have one “true” or “native” language which inevitably, inextricably and immutably ties us to one identity and one culture. As the proverb goes, learning a new language means acquiring a new soul – and bilinguals often feel that different parts of their personality come into play when they speak different languages.

Which language is the dominant one can shift with experience, with context, and with time. But all the languages living in our brain are in a constant exchange with each other and influence one another to some degree, and the same is true for all of our identities. Bilinguals are not, as the linguist and psychologist François Grosjean noted, two monolinguals in one person.

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