Series Post: How Does It Feel to Be Bilingual? (Full of Surprises)


If you’ve missed any of this week’s posts on how it feels to be bilingual, check out why what some call “Spanglish” might pop out of my mouth from time to time (here).

We’ve also discussed necessary language pep talks here.

A final factor in how it feels to be bilingual is that I regularly surprise people that I speak Spanish.

This part is so fun!

I often forget that my face doesn’t match my second language (as far as general assumptions and stereotypes go), so I just start speaking Spanish without thinking, until I noticed that look. You know, the LOOK.

I recently received the LOOK from an Indian woman working as a cashier at Target. I was with my mom and sister waiting for them to pay for their purchases when I overheard this cashier a few lines over asking her manager if anyone was working that could translate for the customer. I left my mom and sister with quizzical looks in their eyes too as I walked into a situation of translating for strangers.

I interrupted the conversation (tactful, I know), “I speak Spanish.”

Cashier raises eyebrows. “But you… you don’t look like you do.”

“I know.” *Best intentions smile* “What can I help you say in Spanish?”

And then she explained to the customer about how his new credit card would work and all the benefits and factors without taking one single breath during her whole explanation, just like she would have if he understood English.

And then I attempted to remember everything she had just said in that one single breath. The customer thanked me and my attempts, ha! The remembering was more difficult than the actual language transfer.

The LOOK. Now that I speak Spanish out loud to Guapa all the time, I get the LOOK more often.

Guapa and I were recently in the grocery store, and I was abiding by routine and speaking to her only in Spanish. A Hispanic gentleman politely asked me, “Hablas espanol?” to which my oh-so-confident self blurted out, “Claro que si!”

Great. It came out with the tone of voice that says, “Why would you ask me that?!?! What a silly question!!”

In the past, my response to that question has been more like, “Si, a veces…” or “Si, un poco…” It’s like I was afraid of my mistakes and wanted to give a disclaimer that I might get it wrong at anytime because we might enter new conversational territory.

The difference this time was that I wasn’t afraid to say with confidence that YES, I SPEAK SPANISH.

I wasn’t afraid of my mistakes anymore.

(In that moment, anyway. There are still other moments when I am… More of those moments for later!)

To sum this series up…

What do I feel like switching between two languages?

  • Channels. Radio static. Speaking bilingual with all language access turned on full power.

What has changed in my brain during these 9 years of language learning?

  • Flexibility. Confidence. Awareness that there are many ways to convey the same idea. An awareness of my mistakes that doesn’t trigger my ruthless inner critic.

That’s how it feels to be bilingual. My friend that asked might have been overwhelmed with this forever-long-answer, so maybe it’s better that I wrote it for the blog instead of saying it all out loud!

What does your language journey feel like for you? Do you have another way of describing two languages in your brain?

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