Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Magali ‘the Trilingual’ Lemahieu


Upon meeting Magali, I have the feeling most people think to themselves, “Ahh, another American is in our midst!” Au contraire my friends, Magali Lemahieu is one hell of a Belgian (refer to photo), just with a chameleon-like ability to switch from perfect American English to Belgian French to Flemish (which is Belgian Dutch). She’s an interesting case, and I think the first Real Live Bilingual I will feature to actually (a) be trilingual and (b) to write that her mother tongue is actually not her mother’s tongue. Très intéressante/Heel interessant/Very interesting. The daughter of a UN worker, Magali moved all over the world as a kid attending English-speaking schools and actually came of age in Myanmar, where she like, didn’t even have internet at home and could only check her Myspace like, once a week. At “uni” (I promise I’m not trying to talk like a Brit, it’s just what everyone else calls “school” here and it sounds a bit more refined because I’m not 16 anymore), I’ll tap Magali on the shoulder and she’ll explain to me in English what’s going on in Macro, turn to Emily and make lunch plans in French, and then answer the phone call from her boo in Flemish. She also has more middle names that your average Spanish aristocrat. I’m lovin’ it. So meet Magali!

What’s your name (accents, characters and all)? Magali Lemahieu (I have five middle names; Anne, Marc, Claire, Stephan, Marie.) Anne is for my godmother, Marc is for my godfather, Claire is for my grandmother on my mother’s side, Stephan is for my grandfather on my father’s side, and Marie is for the Virgin Mary. This is a super old way of connecting a child to both sides of the family and I guess that my mother wanted to keep up with the tradition. I don’t think that I will do the same thing for my children because applying for visas is a real pain with so many official names!

Where were you born? Brugge (Bruges), Belgium

What’s your mother tongue? What other languages do you speak? Mother tongue is always a weird question because I consider my best language to be English. That being said, however, I have always spoken in French to my mother and in Dutch (Flemish) to my father. My first language was also technically French and Dutch but I always went to school in English, and I speak English with my brothers.

Where did you grow up? My father works with the UN so by the time that I was 10 months old we moved from Belgium to South Korea, then to Barbados, then to Myanmar, and then to Austria. I graduated from high school in Austria so from the time that I was 10 months old until I was 18 we moved around from one country to the next. There was a brief period of about six months that we moved back to Belgium but that was due to the fact that we had to wait on our visas to enter Myanmar. I spent my teenage years in Myanmar so I have my fondest memories there. After Austria I moved to Scotland to attend the University of St. Andrew’s and then I spent another four years in Massachusetts and Washington state in the US before moving back to Belgium.

When/how did you learn to speak English? Was it a hard and painful process? Kindergarten was in French but 1st grade onwards was all in English so for me it wasn’t a hard process at all. English, to me, is my native tongue even though technically it isn’t. Since we were moving around so much, my parents decided to put me and my brothers in International Schools in order to have a consistent language throughout our education. I remember having to attend school in Belgium during the six months that we moved back in between Barbados and Myanmar and it was absolutely horrible because all of a sudden I had to go to school in Dutch.

What language do you think in? Dream in? I usually dream in English, but if my mother is in my dream then it is in French and if my father is in my dream then in Dutch. I’ve recently been dreaming in Dutch more often, probably because I use it a lot more now as I am back in Belgium. I also usually think in English, but lately I have been thinking in Dutch more often. I even catch myself writing in Dutch when I want to write something in English.

What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue? What about with the other languages? I associate my mother with French, and my identity with Dutch and English.

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in? English

Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what? The Dutch word: “gezellig”. I guess that it is a type of feeling that you get when everything around you is just right, when you are with the right people, and you feel cozy and complete. I just can’t find a single word in English that would mean the same thing though.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings? Both of my parents speak English but their native language is Dutch as they both come from and grew up in Brugge. I always speak French with my mother and Dutch with my father. I speak in English with my brothers. But in all honesty, I probably speak a cocktail of all three when I am at home.

Do you feel like you have a different personality when you speak one language than when you speak another? I can’t express myself as much in Dutch or in French as I can in English so I often feel like people may perceive me as having a weak personality when I speak in a language other than English.

Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends? Not at all.

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? Yes, definitely. Sometimes I translate words directly from English into Dutch or French and people pick up on that. People say that I have a Belgian accent when I speak French but they say that I sound native when I sound Dutch.

Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did you choose it? “Koekje van eigen deeg” is Dutch for (and this is a literal translation), “cookie from your own dough”. It basically means that you had it coming, or a type of payback. It’s just one of my favorite expressions because in literal terms it is quite innocent, but then the meaning behind it is different. So basically you use a cute, innocent phrase when you are angry and state that someone deserved their payback.

A naughty, naughty word please. A naughty word? Okay, how about “Verdorie” or “Verdomme!”. It means “Damn it!”

Please translate “Alice’s blog is amaaaazingly interesting and the lazy fox jumped over the brown dog”.

 “Alice haar blog is ontzettend interessant en de luie vos springt over de bruine hond”.

And anything else you would like to add! Thanks for letting me share!

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Belgium, Brussels, Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals, English, French, Language, Learning English, Learning Languages, Multilingualism, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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