On Becoming Bilingual

So far, I’ve spoken English to someone who speaks French and Spanish, Spanish to someone who speaks English and German, and mixed Spanish words and grammar into English sentences. I have both given and received quizzical looks over misunderstandings and had some comical moments while transforming my innocent, academic vocabulary into slang- and lisp-filled Spain-Spanish. I’ve been surprised at my inability to fully understand Scottish English, and I’ve sympathized with non-native English speakers about the ridiculousness of English pronunciation. (He was so excited to tell me about a new word he learned for “glasses”, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that “eh-speck-TAHK-lehs” was his version of “spectacles”. We laughed.)

Before I went abroad, I asked some of my friends who were or had been abroad about the experiences with foreign languages. Some of their observations about international students and bilingualism are proving to be very true for me. (Shout outs to Matt, Nicky, David, and Christelle!)

  1. Have you ever noticed that when international students switch from one language to another, they need a second to comprehend what was just said to them? Yes, I can now completely empathize with the confusion having multiple languages spoken at me. The more switching involved, the more trouble I have putting a sentence together or figuring out what everyone’s talking about.
  2. Sometimes international students don’t engage in large groups as well as native speakers, because multiple conversations and a lot of background noise in a second language makes it difficult to understand everything that’s going on. During my first week in Alicante, my host family went out to dinner with a few other families. I have never felt more hopeless about my language skills than when trying to process three rapid Spanish conversations with loud English music in the background. Luckily, I have no trouble when someone is speaking to me directly, but trying to follow others’ conversations takes an enormous effort right now.
  3. Have you noticed that international students tend to have a lot of international friends? Other international students can relate to each others’ experiences, both in terms of being in a foreign country and being a non-native speaker. More than that, it’s comforting to be able to switch to a language where jokes, sarcasm, phrases, slang, and nuances aren’t a struggle. [Disclaimer: While sarcasm in English isn’t exactly my forte either, it’s certainly easier than sarcasm in Spanish!] I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve appreciated being able to lean over to an American and have them confirm that they, too, have no idea what’s going on. And I’ve realized that I don’t have to avoid English to have an immersion experience – balancing Spanish and American friends means I get the best of both worlds.


The more tired I am, the more I stumble, regardless of the language I’m trying to use. But no worries – if I recharge my brain with some sleep, I’ll be talking someone’s ears off in no time.


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