Living a life between two languages

Good news for me, and for many other ex-pats who live life in two languages, came in the form of a New York Times article last week, where cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok (does that remind anyone else of The Producers?) talks about the potential advantages of being bilingual, including reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and increasing the ability to multitask.

So we can all pretty much agree that being bilingual has a lot of advantages. In fact, I’m considering learning another language (and accept suggestions). Right now I’m considering French or German. (I know, Portuguese, but I still have PTSD from my awful Brazilian embassy English class and the sound of Portuguese kind of makes me want to crawl into a hole and die).

However, living in a foreign country while also speaking your native language can be frustrating at times. It’s the silly annoyances like going back and forth between an English keyboard and a Spanish keyboard which causes me to type things like Ñ= while at work when I really mean to type 🙂 or it-s instead of it’s while I’m at home because of the different keyboards.

It gets more serious when I forget how to spell things in English, and swear that movilization is a word in English and excellente is how you spell excellent in Spanish.

And then there are the verbal slip-ups. It’s somewhat natural that I still make mistakes in Spanish, constantly referring to the male security guard at my office as “la guardia” (which would be the female version) no matter how many times my boss corrects me. When I was first immersed in Spanish I made lots of slip-ups in to English, telling my parents on Skype that “I have hungry” (In Spanish it’s tengo hambre and tengo=I have). I’ve learned to control those missteps, but now I say things in English and don’t even realize that isn’t the way we say it in English.

A good example was Friday night as I was talking to my friend R. I don’t even remember exactly what we were discussing, but I think it was about signing up for the GRE. Here in Santiago you can take the GRE at a large English Institute in downtown Santiago. She asked me about the registration process and I told her, “You can sign up online, or with the same people at the Institute.” She paused for a second and said, “Abby, that’s not right…that’s Spanglish.” And she was right. That’s what I would have said in Spanish, translated directly into English.

So while I’m glad that being bilingual and using two languages on a daily basis is helping my brain, sometimes I wish my brain would just calm down and be able to separate the two. The running commentary in my head is often a mixed bag of Spanish and English depending on the day, and my dreams are often in both languages as well. The other day I dreamed I was leading a tour group of senior citizens around Santiago and one of them exclaimed “It’s temblando!” Está temblando is what people say in Spanish when there is a small earthquake.

I suppose I could solve this problem by refusing to speak English while here in Chile, but that would make communication with my friends and family back home a bit difficult, as well as jeopardize my job. I could move back to the U.S. and refuse to speak Spanish, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of having lived abroad and become fluent in Spanish to begin with.

So for now, I guess I’ll live with the daily annoyances and overactive brain. 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to check out some funny group posts about bad menu translations, head on over to Cachando Chile. I unfortunately have no real examples to contribute, except the time when I saw a menu where ham (jamón) was translated as jam throughout the entire thing, creating some interesting menu items (pizza with jam and pineapple, anyone?).


21 thoughts on “Living a life between two languages

  1. I always always say the weirdest spanglish mistakes when Im skyping with people back home. I´m always randomly responding with “yeah, masomenos, i mean..” and replacing random words with spanish in the middle of english sentences. Weird how some words just randomly stick to your brain and pop out suddenly.. haha

    • Yeah that used to happen to me soooo much. Now, only sometimes. But I feel like I’m losing touch with my English and I’m in a certain no-mans-land between the two! At least I don’t say “like” while I”m speaking Spanish! I used to do that and now when I hear gringas saying that it makes me cringe!

  2. Abby- I’ve often heard that bit about being bilingual helping against Alzheimer’s and I’m not sure I buy it at all! Sometimes I think it just makes me more confused… and can you imagine someone in their 80s babbling on in Spanglish? Everyone’s is going to think they’re completely out of it!
    Catherine- my “muletilla chilena” while speaking English is “o sea“!!

    • Haha good point about the crazy 80 year old babbling in Spanglish! I do say “o sea” a lot in Spanish, I think I started saying it when I phased out “like” (see above comment)!

  3. Word. Word. Word. Totally agree! I think it’s just all about the Spanglish.

    I experience the same thing! Mixing the languages.

    And all this Spanglish talk makes me love speaking with other Spanglish speakers, because you don’t have to explain what you mean usually, and they don’t think you’re weird for slipping Spanish in with the English and vice versa. Even my husband is more tolerant of Spanglish! Since he’s much better at English now.

    When I first moved back to the States, I was very bad at throwing Spanish into English conversations. I did it all the time. So I just started ignoring it. Like it didn’t happen, haha. I imagine sometimes people didn’t even notice, haha.

    Besides speaking Spanglish, I try to invent words. For example, I translate temblor to English as tremor, because I just CAN’T translate temblor as earthquake, because that would be terremoto! And a temblor is so not a terremoto! hahaha

    Margaret, I use the same muletilla as you. Love Love Love “o sea”. In fact I don’t even try to take it out of my English speaking most of the time.

    I’m happy to hear we are cutting back on our chances of Alzheimer’s by speaking Spanglish, hahahahahha.

    • I love it. It IS all about the Spanglish. There are so many words that work so well in either Spanish or English that they aren’t translatable. Like cariño or awkward.

      I’ve heard temblor translated a lot as “tremor”…not sure if it’s official or not though.

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I often get confused as I speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese and at least English & Portuguese on a daily basis.
    But I agree with the article; we should be better multitaskers than monolinguals and I wouldn’t be surprised about the claim to reduce our chances of getting Alzheimer’s Disease.
    I enjoyed reading your post.

    • Thanks for stopping by Meredith! I hate that feeling when you know a concept but can’t describe it in either language because your brain is just so confused!

  5. Agree, many times over. With the muletillas, with liking to speak with other Spanglish people. Recent mess up of mine, saying a twitter handle, starting it with arroba. I didn’t notice until the sentence was over. Gah!

    Also, if you study French I will totally go with you. It’s on my list of things to look up when I get home. I took a year in high school, but can’t say that too much of that is still in my brain.

    See you soon!

  6. Let’s study French! I really want to. Has to be cheapish classes though, because I don’t have very many funds.

    I know what you mean about not noticing it until the sentence is over. When my mom came to visit me, someone would say something to me in Spanish, and I would turn to my mom and translate it for her, but just paraphrasing in Spanish. She would look at me funny and then I’d realize…never switched to English. Gah!

  7. Got to the comments section and forgot was I going to say. Damn that Alzheimer’s.

    I think knowing Spanish has totally corrupted my English and I often find myself doubting whether I had such invented a word I’ve just said or created a Spanglishified version of it.

    At least with most expats you can throw them out and won’t get a second look.

  8. Hope the bit about the Alzheimer it’s true!! I have the same problems that you guys, only it’s the other way around…I often assk my friends “Puedo tener una galleta?” (Can I have) or “que has ordenado para comer” (What did you order), forgeting those don’t make any sense in spanish…

    I have a friend who lived in England the same time I lived in Ireland and she also came back at the same time, so we are both back in Spain now. When we talk we stick english words into the conversation all the time, something like “Quedamos a las five en la high street”…Y cuando salimos a beber unas copas, el ingles se apodera de nuestra conversación por completo!! I think the worse muletilla I have is to say “I’m sorry” when I bump into people in the street!

  9. I have such deep admiration for people who are bilingual. My first language is English but I also know a bit of Welsh and French – I would never say I could speak them fluently at all but I didn’t realise how ingrained into my brain they were until I started trying to learn Spanish this year. Even the basics with Spanish like “Me llamo Ceri”, I can’t help but pronounce the double L in the Welsh way.

    But, really, even if you’re ‘forgetting’ English phrases, you have an amazing skill by being bilingual. I can’t wait to hear what other language you’d like to learn – French is pretty easy. 🙂

    • That’s awesome that you know Welsh! My family (many generations back) is from Wales. Was it hard to learn? I think I’m leaning towards learning French. 🙂

  10. These weird little sorts of slip-ups happen to me all the time. The other day I had a student with me for English class, and I couldn’t remember how to say the word “podar” in English. I actually had to go to the dictionary to look it up! “Prune”….right, I knew that. How embarrassing!

    I’d like to study Portuguese, but I’m afraid of what the addition of a third language could do to my brain! 😉

    • I did not know that podar was to prune. Haha. Good to know! It happens to me a lot that I will know what a word means in Spanish but can’t think of its English translation.

  11. I was born into the bilingual thing, and while I might not actually use English when speaking Spanish I do have a hard time finding my words. Just this morning I was telling someone about insulation in American homes and said “insulación”. 🙂 ha ha The guy I was talking to just looked at me. I knew it sounded wrong as soon as it came out of my mouth.
    I completely understand! I’m constantly switching between English and Spanish keyboards as well!
    I learned some French and it was pretty easy.
    (My daughter will be trilingual…I can’t wait to see what happens!)

    • Thanks for stopping by! I also always confuse the -tion ending with -cion, but it happens the most with spelling things. That’s awesome that your daughter will be trilingual. I’m trying to decide between learning French or Portuguese, but this weekend I spent some time with some Brazilians and they almost convinced me to take Portuguese.

  12. My old Colombian exchange student just fb chatted me “your Spanish is getting worse” then he broke it to me/reminded me that contractar is not a verb, I then searched my gmail for how many time I have said that in emails to clients.. it was about 10 different emails. conTRAtar

    • Haha stuff like that has definitely happened to me… I use a word in Spanish so much and then someone finally is like, “Umm, Abby? That’s not a word” Agh why didn’t you tell me before?

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