In the city of Belania, three different languages are commonly spoken. Each language is the mother tongue for roughly one third of the population, but many inhabitants speak all three languages to some degree.
The poulation is divided in two groups with different attitudes to language, the Patarians and the Lysipriots. Patarians focus all their attention on their mother tongue. They are expertly versed in its grammar, vocabulary, literature, history, and culture. As a consequence, they spend very little time cultivating the other languages, and can only communicate in them at a very basic level. This makes it incredibly difficult for Patarians with different mother tongues to talk to one another.
Lysipriots focus all their attention on their two non-native languages. They are perfectly fluent in all languages, able to talk to anyone in the city effortlessly. However, in dividing their attention, they can never truly master any one language. When speaking their non-native languages, they miss words and expressions from their mother tongue, making their sentences inelegant at times. When speaking their mother tongue, they sometimes notice that they are thinking in another language, and translating from it in their head.
Patarians look down on Lysipriots because they are not as eloquent in their mother tongue, but secretly they are ashamed of their shortcomings in the other languages. They, too, would like to be able to converse with anyone in the city so easily. Lysipriots make fun of the Patarians’ embarassing attempts to speak their non-native languages, but secretly envy their rich vocabulary and deep knowledge of their culture.
This city is a reflection of my experience speaking three languages, distributed more or less evenly, over the last few years, and my conversations with other people who have different backgrounds and approaches to language.
Speaking multiple languages fluently is cool in theory, but it can be very confusing in practice. Very often there is a perfect phrase to express a concept in one of the other languages, but not in the one I’m using right then, so I clumsily translate it on the fly. In situations like this, having to use only one language feels limiting, and requires discipline while speaking. Ultimately I’m happy to speak multiple languages, but like the Lysipriots, I am also incredibly envious of people who are able to express themselves very elegantly in their mother tongue.