Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Colm Liam O’Neill (call-um-lee-yum-oh-neel)

This is the first installment of my blog column, Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals. I will be interviewing my friends who speak natively another language in addition to English or another first language.

This is me and my main squeeze, Colm.

When you meet Colm for the first time, you will probably have a very hard time placing his charming accent. This is because he is 100% Irish (I think his name might have given that away), but has grown up his whole life in Belgium and has always attended French-speaking school.

Probably the most frustrating thing about Colm’s life is his name! While it suits him well, Irish names aren’t so common in Belgium as they are in America, because the Irish didn’t arrive in hordes by the millions on the 43 miles of Belgian coast. It looks like he is missing a vowel in his first name, and then there’s that little inconspicuous apostrophe that causes oodles of chaos and confusion. The other night a friend of Colm’s even called him up and asked him exactly how to pronounce his name because he and a friend were debating its exact phonetics!

I am slowly but steadily Americanizing Colm, much to his chagrin, and he has already taken such strides as incorporating the word “schlep” into his vocabulary and making the best iced coffee on this side of the Atlantic.

What’s your name (accents, characters and all)

Colm Liam O’Neill

Where were you born?

Ixelles, Brussels 

What languages do you speak? What’s your mother tongue?

English (mother tongue) and French. Frenglish. 

When/how did you learn to speak French (Colm, for you French)? Was it a hard and painful process?

Around the age of 3 or 4 (Belgium kinder garden age). Can’t really remember it at all to be honest. It was hard. Painful because my parents didn’t understand WTF I was on about regarding school most of the time. 

What language do you think in? Dream in?

Circumstantial. Depends who I’m around and how much time I’ve been spending in either language. Dreams are on an entire other level, can’t remember them most of the time, and when I do, they hardly involve long and deep conversations. Nightmares are in French though I can tell you that. 

What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue?

Family. Comfort. Ireland. Frustration and awkwardness in expression.

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in?

French I think. Spent more academic time in French simple as that.

Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what?

Andalouse? Fricandelle? Insults and swearwords, too obviously. Words to express taste and describe visuals like color. Luminesence and luminencence have different technical uses in either language for example. Also I feel like some lexical fields in either language relate to more or less specific items. While some words seem very specific and technical and precise in one, the other may seem more common and used. To me anyway.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings?

Yup. English only. French with them is painful. Brother and sister is the same. Although they have a better knowledge of French, I usually have deeper conversations with them in English.

Do you feel different when you speak your mother tongue?

Not particularly. I feel more like me honestly.

Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?

They make me feel awkward, because they want me to talk in this language that is foreign to them. So it’s like being a circus animal.

Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now?

Yeah defo. Irish people think I’ve learned English as a second language, I have a different accent then them. And a different general speech tone and pattern. Also, Cork, my home town, has a close to impossible accent to understand.

Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did u choose it?

Tá cluasa fada ar mhuca beaga. Means “Little pigs have big ears”. My elderly family would switch to Gaelic when talking about PG14 stuff. When I would ask why this is what I was told.

A naughty, naughty word please.

Tosser? Wanker? More spoken language, and not that naughty, but I love the way they sound. You can emphasize your hatred vocally. Make them as naughty as you want them to be.

A sexy word please.

Sláinte! Means “health” in Gaelic, used as a “Cheers!”

 “Alice is awesome and I love her and miss her!”

All this is true, but I don’t know enough Gaelic. And you know the words in French and English 🙂

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
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One Response to Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Colm Liam O’Neill (call-um-lee-yum-oh-neel)

  1. Louise Egan says:

    Nice interview – but why not record it and the others?! I was hoping to hear Colm’s charming accent me-self! Also, why does 0Neill’s have an accent over the O? (just like ONeil’s bar in NYC – Does that make the pronunciation different? BTW, there’s also a bar on the Lower East Side called “Slainte.” Makes me want to learn Gaillic!

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