Being Bilingual: Deactivation Denied
Bilingualism is often considered inside a vacuum; many people assume that bilinguals simply speak a second language and leave it at that.
Something rarely discussed outside of academic setting is the phenomena of deactivation. Obviously, when not in use a second language can fade – even be forgotten, if only temporarily. Sometimes a second language is forgotten or suppressed more or less voluntarily – it is deactivated.
There are advantages to deactivating a language: Interferences occur less frequently, and it can make the assimilation process into a new culture much easier. Sometimes the goal is simply to free up some ‘mind space’ for new activities or studies when a second language is no longer required.
Cultures can be deactivated as well. Bicultural people bring a host of behaviors and attitudes with them from their original culture. Consider things such as greetings – shaking hands versus embracing – or tipping, which is much more common (and much larger in percentage!) in the United States than in some other areas of the world. If you’ve ever encountered someone from another country and thought them quite rude, and later discovered they were mortified to hear that, you have dealt with someone who had not deactivated their culture.
Making the Adjustment
Deactivating a culture and/or language is often necessary or at least helpful when adjusting to a new culture or living situation. If you have adopted a new country and seek to ‘fit in’ there, forgetting the way you once did things or handled situations in favor of the new way – to ‘do as the Romans do’ as the phrase goes – is often necessary.
While some of your cultural baggage might seem charming to your new neighbors, some cultural differences are perceived as rude or irritating. If nothing else, a failure to deactivate a cultural predilection can imply that you have not fully embraced your new world.
The problem for many bilinguals or biculturals comes when deactivation cannot be fully achieved. It is not always easy or even possible to switch over to a whole new way of doing things. Old attitudes and behaviors will often ‘blend’ with new ones, producing wholly unique interactions, as with one friend of mine who always greets you first with a very firm Western-style handshake, immediately followed by him pulling you close for an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. If he could ever learn to stop after the first half, no one would ever suspect he was originally from Europe!