The Truth About Being Bilingual

I speak Spanish and English. My native language is English and I have studied and spoken Spanish for over 10 years.

But you need to know the truth about being bilingual.

Please do not expect me to interpret for you just because I am bilingual. Interpreting requires me to process a conversation twice – every phrase, every emotion, every question – twice I experience it. If I hear trauma, I hear the trauma, and then need to repeat the trauma, while attempting to maintain the dignity and sacredness of that experience from its narrator. If I tell a joke, I have to figure out how to tell a joke all over again. (And please take note, jokes rarely translate).

If an emergency is taking place, please, go ahead and interrupt whatever I am doing so that I can interpret. That isn’t snark, I mean it, there are times when the other is more important. But please, if I am going about my day, don’t demand me to translate. I usually will, I don’t have a reason to say no, but I didn’t learn another language to just help, I learned another language to be in solidarity with another culture.

To the person who demanded I translate, while we were off work, relaxed, shopping in the local shops, please don’t. I want to relax as well, and although you may feel comfortable bartering, that doesn’t mean that I feel comfortable doing it for you. While the words I translate may be yours, it is still my face behind them, and my energy. (I do want to add the disclaimer that if you are asking me to translate because we are at work and it is a part of my job, the above does not apply, the context changes things greatly.)

If I am interpreting for you, remember that there is another person in the conversation. Don’t look at me, look at the person. My hearing is not dependent on whether you are in my line of sight. Also, if you aren’t conversing with the other person, then why I am there? I am nothing more than a living version of Google, the person you need to focus on is the one who I am interpreting for.

The choice to be bilingual, and for non-native speakers, the choice to learn another language is personal. Although I know you are all coming from a “good place” I am telling you now, you do not have permission to tell us how to learn another language. My husband is a native Spanish speaker and he is still learning full English fluency. We only speak to each other in Spanish. This is a decision that we, as a couple, made together. We talked about what would be best, for us. It does not mean that he is not learning English, it simply means that I am not the primary avenue by which he will learn English. But a lot of people don’t seem to like that. In the 5+ years of our relationship, I have heard countless times “you should only speak English at home,” “how will he learn English if you don’t use it?’ And countless times I have had to defend our decision. And almost all of those people have one thing in common – they only speak one language. How then, do they have any authority to comment on the best way to learn another language?

For native speakers, you don’t have to assume that I prefer English. I use Spanish and English equally in my day. When I ask you to repeat, it isn’t because my Spanish is weak, I only asked you to repeat because I have hearing loss, there was static on the phone, or I genuinely could not hear what you said. The language that you used wouldn’t have changed that. But saying that, over time I have also learned that your reason for choosing one language over the other when speaking with me, is rooted in your own experience. And although I am always excited to speak your native language with you, you may not be comfortable sharing that intimacy with me, and I am sorry if I have not respected that.

The decision to be bilingual is a very personal one, and can be a very different decision depending on your background. I am a white American (from the United States of America), where being bilingual is a privilege that I chose to take advantage of. When people learn I am bilingual, they are quick to praise my talent.

But for some, when they try to speak their native language they are told to go back to their country – regardless of whether they can speak English. They are often not applauded for their skills, but told off for not being assimilated. While I see so much value in how language maintains culture, I recognize that being bilingual can be painful and shameful for many – I have no right to comment on whether or not they should speak multiple languages.

For the 1st generation immigrants, I know that it often pains you to see your children not be bilingual. But please do not compare their Spanish to the Spanish of the gringa sitting next to them. When they struggle to form a sentence, do not point out that I am fluent. In that moment, I feel embarrassed. I do not feel proud. I feel like the white colonizer who is deemed better than the native. Don’t perpetuate the colonization of our country. And imagine how your child feels? The white girl is more Latina than the child whose parents are Mexican? No one comes out inspired in this scenario, we feel angry and sad.

I am grateful every day to be bilingual, (and I plan on learning Swahili next!).

But being bilingual carries with it an important history of colonization, racism, and most importantly identity. It is not simply learning another language, but it is making the history of that culture a part of your own, and you do not get to choose which bits and pieces you want. Your roll may not always be a good one. But it can also create a life of beautiful solidarity and connection.

Whatever your experience, whether you are bilingual or not, whether you are bilingual by choice or by necessity, my only ask is to respect each other’s journey and decisions. The “why” is much more powerful than you may realize.

Are you bilingual or have you had experiences with different languages? What are the struggles or misconceptions that you have faced? Or what are the beautiful moments you have experienced?

13 thoughts on “The Truth About Being Bilingual

  1. The fact you recognize the nuances of being bilingual, and as a White person how this impacts carrying the history of colonization, etc is so impactful. I wish more people would have this level of reflection and respect. It sounds difficult to navigate when people around you (outside of your work) expect you to interpret and/or when people have opinions about what language you should and should not be speaking at home with your husband — you seem to deal with it so well though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this, I can make sure I am always mindful of this when I am with bilingual people.

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed the post. Being bilingual has certainly been a long journey, and one that I continue to learn from. But being able to imagine both sides, it helped me to become more sensitive to how a person may be impacted. I appreciate that you can take something from my experiences and include them in your own life. And keep learning! These are my experiences, but they are definitely not the only experiences.

  2. This is really interesting. I wish I had that skill. I can see that sometimes you are relaxing and people just ask you to translate on tap and that must be annoying.

    1. The part that frustrates me the most isn’t even when someone asks me to translate when I am trying to relax, it is when someone basically expects me to translate without asking, they kind of forget about the person behind the skill for a moment.

      1. I can see that must make you feel awkward.

  3. Love your post so much that I have saved it!

    1. Thank you so much, that means so much to hear! I am glad to know that it resonated with you.

  4. Thanks for sharing! This is such an important discussion. There’s definitely a bias in the US around multilingualism and race–when white people are bilingual, it’s praised as a skill, but when others (particularly children of immigrants) are bilingual, it’s seen as a liability.

    1. I absolutely agree. I have had so many experiences personally, or witnessed many experiences where the expectations around individuals speaking multiple languages is very varied and unfortunately very racially driven, with racism and xenophobia being at the root.

  5. I know exactly what you mean about translation. I speak English and French, hardly an exotic combination, but cannot translate. If I’m speaking a language I’m thinking in it too, switching is so so hard. Every now and then I’ll be on the phone in one language, with a message session in the other and I get totally confused, it takes longer to even formulate my thoughts.

    1. A bilingual mind is really a fascinating thing that is hard to describe unless you have experienced it first hand. French is on my list to learn next, as well as Arabic and Swahili. Finding the time is the next step, haha.

      1. I always wanted to learn Arabic but I fear the time has passed.

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