Series Post: What Does It Feel Like to Be Bilingual?

I seriously did this the other day while talking to my husband:

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And then two seconds later, I clapped my hand over my mouth and said, “Did you just hear what I said?!”

Yup, I changed languages about 5 times while speaking the same sentence.

A good friend asked me the other day: “What’s it like to be bilingual?”

I’d never really considered “what it is like,” let alone how to explain to someone else the feeling of two languages forever active in my brain. In that particular conversation, I jumbled out some scratch-the-surface answer and of course kept thinking about it later. If I could go back to that conversation now, here’s (a long version of) what I might say:

First and foremost, it feels like having two radio channels in my brain.

If I need to speak English, I switch to channel 1. If Spanish is what I need, I switch to channel 2.

It’s like having an invisible remote control that I can use to adapt my own thinking radio channel. (Apparently, they call this executive control.)

Most of the time, it works to switch between the two different channels as needed, but sometimes there’s static noise in one or the other… or even both at the same time. Some might call these static moments “speaking Spanglish,” but I recently encountered the opinion that Spanglish is negative in that it seems the speaker is confused. (More on my thoughts about possible language confusion in toddlers here.)

I’m not confused, I promise. I know exactly what I want to say, but it might not come out in exactly the words I want it to. It’s like a moment when my brain opens all sound wavelengths to receive all acceptable synonyms for the word(s) I’m looking for, regardless of language category, combining words into sentences into paragraphs at lightning speed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And before I know it, evidence that I am bilingual is what comes out of my mouth.

Being bilingual is now my heart language.

There’s a certain shift of personality and cultural cues that happen when a person changes between their language channels. I definitely feel this in my brain as well as perhaps I use my pointer finger to signal what I’m talking about when I’m talking in English, yet I use my chin to point to something when I am speaking in Spanish. Or the typical greeting of a handshake when I’m speaking English and a light touch of the cheeks and an air kiss to greet in Spanish.

When I’m around someone else that understands these brain channels of language, personality, and culture, I feel like I can be myself even more than if I am limited to only half of my language resources in my brain. I’m no longer limited to only accessing one language channel to communicate fully.

Let loose.

Not care about which language channel I’m tuning into.

Speak from a stream of consciousness, which probably means I will mix my two language together .

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Karen Beeman is my hero in the world of bilingualism as she travels the United States training teachers and advocating for what bilingual students truly need. I have now heard her speak 6 different times since I became a dual language teacher, and every time I am absolutely inspired by her teaching methods and dedication to language education. Also astounding is that she remembers my name every time she sees me!

About a month ago, I attended one of Karen’s workshops for our school district, and during our conversation about being a Spanglish teacher and mommy, she challenged me to think of it as “speaking bilingual” instead of “speaking Spanglish.”

You see, “speaking Spanglish” seems to hold a negative overtone (in general), as if it’s a bad thing. It might be perceived as rude to those around you that don’t understand every other word coming out of your mouth. It might tell others that you are confused about grammar of one language or the other.

But saying that you are “speaking bilingual” holds a more positive connotation. It says, “I am speaking to you right now using all my language knowledge, not just the half of my languages.” (although it’s a fine line of being considered rude when others around you don’t understand part of what you’re saying… I have yet to reconcile how all these language and cultural rules work together.)

Tico and I got together with some good friends last weekend who are also bilingual, and all four of us switched language channels constantly. It was so fun and completely freeing to express myself with whatever first came to mind without pausing to consider my audience to double check it they would understand what I really mean.

Speaking bilingual is so fun! …well, most of the time….

More to come this week for this series post: What does it feel like to be bilingual?

2 thoughts on “Series Post: What Does It Feel Like to Be Bilingual?

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