What does it feel like to become bilingual as an adult?
April 24, 2020 8:04 PM   Subscribe

If I’m going to continue on my current path it’s important for me to become fluent in Spanish. Despite that I’m having trouble getting started and I’ve realized one of the big reasons is that I don’t have any image in my mind of what it would feel like to speak two languages. I’ve talked to people who grew up bilingual, but what if you came into it later in life?

I’m particularly concerned about cultural context. Some of my most joyous interactions with English involve riffing on Shakespeare or Looney Tunes. I know thousands of old sayings, some wiser than others. They all provide reference points. I feel like my ability to communicate via metaphor and analogy will be greatly diminished.

I also wonder about memory. Will I have two different contextual memories for conversations? Will it be work to collate ongoing conversations that take place one day in English in the next day in Spanish?

I’d love to hear the experience of anyone who has become bilingual as an adult.
posted by Tell Me No Lies to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I hope my experience "counts" at least a little.

I spent a lot of time overseas as a child and was apparently fluent as a small child, but then we spent a year in Australia when I was 5 which wiped it out. I struggled with Spanish all through growing up, only "clicking" when I was 17 or so.
I kept at Spanish through uni so I wouldn't lose it.

I consider myself bilingual, but English is definitely my stronger language.

I guess metaphor and analogy are cultural and take a while to absorb, and yeah, it will take a while to get to a similar level.

On how it feels, I feel like I have a slightly different personality when I speak Spanish.

On conversations in English/Spanish I feel like the concepts transcend the language used so I personally don't have an issue with memory.

I think one of the big issues with adult language learning is the fact that there is this other language already fully developed right there to use- it's like those tennis players or arm wrestlers with one huge arm and one smaller arm. It's tempting to get frustrated.

But keep at it- you might not get to parity but you can strengthen the other language with effort.
posted by freethefeet at 8:29 PM on April 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

It feels amazing. Awe inspiring. The best thing I have ever done.

I took Spanish in school growing up but never got anywhere. Then I lived in Uruguay after graduating from college and got more or less fluent. Then I continued maintaining and improving it. I can do more or less everything you'd want to do, but my literary vocabulary is weak.

I started learning mandarin at 28 (I'm not 32), and ended up moving to China to continue studying, though I got to a conversational level in about a year and a half with a full time job. Honestly, the time in China obviously helped refine my Mandarin, but the biggest help was just having the time to crunch my way to literacy. Be thankful Spanish doesn't use characters :) My Spanish accent is better than my Mandarin accent, but my Mandarin vocabulary (active and passive) blow my Spanish vocab out of the water atm.

A year and a half ago I started learning Japanese from home in China. All my classes are online. I'm conversational now -- more conversational than I was in Chinese when I moved to China. Knowing Chinese has been a huge help for Japanese literacy, but the biggest help has just been having experience in language learning.

I am constantly humbled by language learning. It's extremely frustrating, but also extremely rewarding. I'm an American, and growing up it was just taken for granted that "everyone wanted to be in America" and that "everyone learns English." I know that not to be the case now, of course, but it is true that in America, my interaction with people for whom English was not their first language was always on my terms...I was the native speaker (and a highly educated one at that), they were not. I am a programmer and worked with a ton of immigrants whose English was, well, not very good. I never held it against them, but like...these are people, you know? Really smart people. Once you can speak their language...wow, an entire world opens up. Because you can hear them make complicated word play, you can hear them enjoy a level of fluency of communication that is very hard to reach in a non-native language.

So to me, that's the true gift of learning a language. Before I studied language, I did have lots of friends from various countries with english at various levels of proficiency...but the truth is that most people who learn english are not going to get to the "making shakespeare wordplay" level. Which is fine! But I found that I was willing to put in the work to get there, and in a sense, it opened up a whole world. People that society completely overlooks -- say, migrant workers -- have incredibly vibrant personalities and lives and cultures...because they're human! And humans have incredibly vibrant personalities and lives and cultures! In Mandarin, so many people have opened up to me because I was very fluent in their language, but being from a different culture I think created a sense that I was safe or at least wouldn't judge them or whatever.

It's amazing. I can go on forever, I'm not great at describing stuff, but I hope it makes sense? Learning another language, for me, isn't about me. Yes, my own expressive power goes down, and that is extremely painful. It was absolute torture with Spanish and Mandarin, though I had the right mindset (due to experience) with Japanese. I went from being "very smart" in English to "extremely stupid" in whatever language I was learning. But you're now centering on other people and cultures, which is humbling but very rewarding. And if you are smart about how you study, one day you will be fluent enough that you'll make culturally and contextually appropriate reference in the new language! Or forge new ones with your friends!

Language learning is by far the hardest thing I've ever done, but also the most rewarding. I leave you with this quote:

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
-Nelson Mandela
posted by wooh at 8:29 PM on April 24, 2020 [43 favorites]

I learned English in high school and then started living in English-speaking countries in my 30s. It took me I’d say around a decade of substantial everyday immersion to be able to feel really fluent on the pun/metaphor/idiom front. For reference, I still can‘t do the NYT crossword puzzle while I‘m pretty good at similar German puzzles. A lot of it of course depends on your circumstances (ie I never had an English-speaking partner which would surely had made a difference - also, do you have a job that makes you use the language a lot. Etc.)

While not being as fluent as you are in your first language is a hindrance at times — somewhere I read that it gives you the experience of being the village idiot no matter how smart you are —, for me the alienating effect of speaking in a second language has always appeared as a benefit rather than a disadvantage. It makes me look at things in a different way and has literally created a second person (the English-speaking ‚me‘), with different attitudes, emotions, and even temperament.

As a person with a rich inner life, it has felt immensely liberating to have another language at my disposal. For example, I write diary entries in English, because I feel more free to express myself. I have internal conversations in English. It feels less hemmed in than my native language (which I still enjoy, but for other purposes).

As for your memory question: the collation of mixed language conversations is hard work at the beginning. Further along, it ceases to be conscious work. When talking to fellow long term bilinguals, it even feels easier to switch languages mid sentence or even mid word than to ‚stick‘ to one language. In a way, the border between the two languages disappears and you get one big language that you share with other bilinguals of your ilk, switching whenever the other word or expression or metaphor fits better. I find this very beautiful, although it can be offputting and confusing to monolinguals.

I think if you‘re just starting out learning a language, and do not have plans for long term everyday immersion which would make you truly fluent, these are probably not things to worry about. You can just enjoy being able to enter another world.
posted by The Toad at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2020 [20 favorites]

It feels amazing. And the best thing is that it starts to feel amazing long before you actually get there.

To me, learning a language feels like developing a relationship. It takes a while but over time you and the other person develop your own in-jokes, your own way of discussing things, mental shortcuts. It's not all or nothing - you become more intimate over a long time, so there is a time where it's just moments of deeper connection - and the process is itself very enjoyable.

I started learning English as a child growing up in Central Europe when the Berlin Wall was very much still there. We had no access to English language books or other media. I was taken to London for a week when I was fifteen but I spent that entire time talking to people I was with and had no real exposure to English other than buying postcards or asking for directions.
I made a three week trip to the US several years later as a thirty something but that was it. No other chance of immersion.

I learned English the traditional way, by studying textbooks and doing grammar drills but as soon as I could get my hands on a real English book I started chewing my way through it. It was very hard at first but
after the third book or so it got easier and then came a point when it didn't feel like a chore anymore. It would have been so much easier today with the internet and movies you can stream - in fact, I witnessed one of my young relatives become fluent in English over the last few years with much less effort.

After a time, switching between languages becomes easy. I actually find it easier to express certain ideas in English than my mother tongue - I read so much Ask a Manager that I could probably navigate a salary negotiation much better in English than in Polish. Also, there are things that different languages are just better at expressing.
posted by M. at 9:22 PM on April 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I got interrupted on my phone so had to post or delete but to answer your specific questions:

Yes, at the beginning it will feel frustrating to be unable to express nuance. But you'll be able to *understand* nuance much sooner. And then each time you'll be able to express that nuance a little bit better. You won't be able to riff Shakespeare but you'll quote The Good Place, you know? Shakespeare comes too, at some point, if you are the kind of person who likes Shakespeare. Personally, this was the deciding factor for me - I'm fluent in English and fairly fluent in German but I never found German authors I liked as much as English ones and so the depth is not there, not to the same extent. Same with French - I'm able to read the news and communicate but it's just not as nice to power though French books for some reason.

This was actually huge for me. I learned English by learning C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien, and Chesterton, and all my favorite authors, and they made the journey worth it and enjoyable. I could not fall in love with Kafka or Mann so my German never quite got to the same level.

Remembering conversations is not a problem. Due to my work I often switch between languages in the same conversation and it's not an issue. It's not like having two different relationships with the person or two different parts of yourself. Speaking to someone who speaks only one of your languages is like speaking to someone who hasn't seen Star Wars, you remember to not use Star Wars references and that's it.

Enjoy the experience, it's so worth it.
posted by M. at 9:40 PM on April 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love this question. Like wooh above, learning languages is the best thing I've ever done.

I took French in high school, but never really got anywhere with it. In college I had the opportunity to get a scholarship that would pay for my preferred degree if I stayed at an in-state school and also took a second degree in a second language. As a part of that language degree, I'd be required to study abroad for at least a 3 month summer term. Sure, I thought, why not? I was very casual about the whole thing, not expecting it to click.

Then I got to the study abroad part. I went to France and... stayed for more than a year. Honestly, learning a second language (and all the culture and history and phonetics and syntax and on and on that comes with it) very literally changed my life. It expanded my horizons like nothing I'd ever experienced before.

It's more than 20 years later, and in the last decade I've picked up a decent amount of Portuguese and German for work. I'd *love* to pick up Italian next. Honestly, given the time and resources, I would love few things more than to keep picking up languages.

To your specific questions:

I’m particularly concerned about cultural context. Some of my most joyous interactions with English involve riffing on Shakespeare or Looney Tunes. I know thousands of old sayings, some wiser than others. They all provide reference points. I feel like my ability to communicate via metaphor and analogy will be greatly diminished.

To be blunt, this is exactly what language instruction is built out of: you'll (probably) learn the Shakespeare translations that Spanish speakers grew up with, the names of Looney Tunes characters in translation (e.g. "Yosemite Sam" only makes sense if you grow up knowing Yosemite, so he's probably called something else--in Brazil he's called Eufrazino Puxa-Briga!), proverbs and witty turns of phrase and historic bons mots. You literally map a new set of ever-expanding reference points in your mind. And, yeah, of course, in the beginning of learning a new language you're basically a child--you're picking up syntax and vocabulary and pronunciation first, then you use those building blocks to master metaphor and analogy. And it's *fun* to do this, in no small part because, for me at least, mastering a second language taught me *so much more* about English than all of the English classes I'd ever taken. No joke, picking up a new language made me a much, much better English speaker, writer, thinker, communicator.

I also wonder about memory. Will I have two different contextual memories for conversations? Will it be work to collate ongoing conversations that take place one day in English in the next day in Spanish?

To the first question: kinda. It's hard to explain. The better you get at a new language, the more it's "mapped" into, or woven into, your English. Learning a new language sort of requires that you get very good at circumlocution. When you can't think of a word in language 2, instead of getting hung up on it, you use your native mastery of language 1 to find a substitute path toward explaining what you would have liked to have say if only you knew or could remember that missing word. New languages in your brain don't exist in separate pockets of your brain, they just keep filling up the language pocket, complementing and augmenting one another. You'll surprise yourself sometimes, with all sorts of landmarks. The first time you have a dream that includes your second language is a big one for a lot of people (I still remember the first time this happened to me, 21 years later). The first time you overhear a conversation in passing and understand what was being said without having to concentrate and focus on someone's moving lips was another big one for me. Same goes for the first time you really get a joke and laugh because you find it funny, not because you're relieved you understood all the words. The first time you have a blended conversation using both languages, not out of necessity but because you and your conversation partner know both languages and, let's be honest, some languages are better for some phrases than others. Those languages will collate seamlessly in your mind and recall.

Language really is magic. I'm amazed that our brains are capable of this stuff.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:54 PM on April 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

I think I fit into your category of becoming bilingual as an adult, as I learned ASL at the ripe old age of 39. ASL is a wildly cool language with its own culture, puns, jokes, rhymes, poetry etc. etc. I'm a big pun person, and English puns often don't translate, but ASL has its own puns that are equally amusing. Part of becoming bilingual is learning those things too - language doesn't exist in a vacuum. Part of my early struggle (and still struggle) is understanding sarcasm in ASL - and again, that is often cultural, so I think more exposure will help overtime. As a very sarcastic person, it does bum me out a bit that I can be out-sarcasmed by someone in another language.

Regarding your question about memory - I don't have different contextual memories. In fact, I often can't recall if someone told me something in ASL or English. I just know I was told it. That probably sounds strange because wouldn't I be able to remember if I had heard it or seen it - but I'm focused on the information, so the form of acquisition gets totally lost on me.

At first I struggled switching between the languages, but I'm better now if the conversations are short ("I'll meet you at home!" "OK!") I do prefer to stick with one language at a time though, because my brain just isn't that quick. I do agree with the poster above that there are some things that are easier for me to express in one language over the other - some concepts in ASL don't exist in English. I imagine this is probably the case for many languages.

In reference to the above poster, I do now have dreams in sign language.
posted by Toddles at 10:16 PM on April 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I learned English at school (and later on French and German, but English is the only other language I'm really fluent in).

I’m particularly concerned about cultural context. Some of my most joyous interactions with English involve riffing on Shakespeare or Looney Tunes. I know thousands of old sayings, some wiser than others. They all provide reference points. I feel like my ability to communicate via metaphor and analogy will be greatly diminished.

Ho ho ho, you're in for a world of hurt. I had to wade my way through Shakespeare and King James Version quotes and try to look up why people were saying "bang, zoom! straight to the moon!" and who were the Three Stooges and the "Who's on first" routine, because we never saw The Honeymooners or Gilligan's Island or Happy Days here. Now you get to puzzle over why people say "síganme los buenos" or "del barco de Chanquete no nos moverán" and learn the dialogues from Les Luthiers like you'd learn Monty Python skits so you can get the references.
posted by sukeban at 1:05 AM on April 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

It is tough, but it's also joyful. Everyone in the language you're learning treats it like the air around them, but for you...you get to experience it all for the first time! As an adult! Bringing your own culture and experiences to play! It's really hard, but also a lot of fun!

And if we are linkingLes Luthiers...
posted by wooh at 2:19 AM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is such a wonderful question. I don’t have too much to add other than to echo a lot of the recollections above, but for a quick summary, I started learning Spanish in middle school but didn’t attain fluency until my late 20s. Now, in my late 30s, I use the language every day with ease as part of my job.

Cultural references are indeed hard, maybe even inaccessible if they refer to things people grew up with that are no longer a thing. Also, even though I can have complex conversations with people about an array of topics, humor is still difficult to access, just because I often don’t get why it’s funny. Even if I understand it literally, I don’t quite get it. I think this is just something you need to accept as a non-native learner. Conversations about local politics and social issues (most of the Spanish speakers I interact with are Colombian, so it’s usually about the situation there) are pretty challenging too, like, I’m basically lost.

This isn’t to be discouraging, because I do think all of that might come with time — and, more importantly, immersion in one of the cultures that speaks the language — but it’ll be a lot slower than your general lexicon and grammatical knowledge.

On the question of memory: something funny I’ve noticed is that when I have a conversation in Spanish, I remember the content of it later in English. The meaning sticks with me but I often can’t remember the precise wording (which is also true of conversations in English, admittedly, but “remembering” Spanish conversations in English makes it more obvious).

I’ll also second that this pursuit was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made. I come from an English monolingual heritage, and none of my family members spoke another language when I was learning. It gave me access to other people on their terms — with a new tool to show them respect — and access to another part of myself, too (I would echo the above that I feel like I’m a bit of a different person in Spanish, for instance.) It really feels like a superpower, like magic almost.
posted by Kosh at 4:59 AM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am a native speaker of German but studied English at school and ended up living in the UK for over a decade, fully immersed. I did my professional training in English and all my adult work experience was in English and then I moved back to a German speaking part of the world. But there are a ton of expats here. Many of my colleagues and clients are either native speakers of English or of third languages and because their English tends to be a lot better than their German we default to English.

Immersion into English was easy enough as student and trainee. But the fact that all my technical knowledge and vocabulary was acquired in English, as is most of the technical literature I have consumed since, made it very difficult to go the other way. I can read German technical literature or understand what people are saying in a German technical discussion. But at first I sounded like an idiot when I had to discuss technical topics in German. A non native speaker would have been forgiven for struggling (in fairness, they could have had the discussion in English to start out with) but as native speaker I was expected to sound competent in either language and well, I didn’t in one of them. I simply never acquired that technical vocabulary in German during my training and therefore it was not easily accessible as active vocabulary later. I can make that work now but it will always take more effort.

Regarding the use of idioms and cultural references. Please be very aware that any audience that contains non native speakers of a language is not going to understand these finer points you’re trying to make. Even among native speakers you need the right age range and socio economic background if you want to be reasonably certain that most of your audience pick up on all these things. In fact, communication guides strongly discourage use of these tools for anything approaching a diverse audience. And you simply don’t need them to communicate well with people.

So yes, people will say things you don’t understand or don’t understand in that context - after I moved to England I was very confused when cashiers in the Midlands region kept calling me ‘pet’, ‘duck’, ‘chicken’ etc. But it was clear they were being friendly and I later had a local explain it’s simply how a certain socio economic group in that area address each other. You also don’t have to understand every film, cartoon or literary reference to understand people and be understood.

As language learner/new arrival it is good practice to be open minded and curious and not make too many assumptions about what people mean*. And as you are making the effort to acquire that language native speakers are normally very willing to clarify. And you should be willing to do the same if you get puzzled faces when you say something. Over time these situations become less and less. But some things will always remain confusing. To this day I can’t remember if I like my eggs ‘over easy’ or ‘easy over’, but I am very clear I don’t like them ‘sunny side up’...

* That is true not just for words but every aspect of how life in another country works. You know what a ‘tenancy agreement’ is but you also make all kinds of assumptions about what rights and obligations that might define. But the assumptions are informed by the legal framework you live in. In a different country the rights and obligations may be very different and you wouldn’t believe how many expats sign these things and have nasty surprises.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:58 AM on April 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm German, started learning English as a child (not through immersion, just in class a few times as week) and Japanese at 18 in university. I speak both languages fluently now, although my English is much better. I can use both professionally and have been told that I sound like a native many times. I believe my English, which shares a writing system and roots with German, really is excellent, but while my Japanese is great considering I started learning it as an adult, there are many words I do not know, I often find my sentences inelegant, and I don't have a lot of confidence in my language skills.

I do think that constantly operating in a second (or third) language is more tiring than using one's native language. In daily life, I don't really have to think about vocabulary or phrasing, and it's actually easier for me to come up with the English term for something over the German word because most of my reading is in English these days, but it does feel like my brain is constantly running an extra program in the background that uses up some of its battery, if that makes sense. I rarely get to speak German, even when I am sick, because my husband won't learn it, and sometimes I miss it. I feel like talking about emotional topics in a second language, or doing therapy in English, adds one degree of separation to everything, but maybe I'm imagining that. My brother and I had to have a huge talk completely in English because my husband was involved, and maybe that was the reason why we could finally be honest and not fight for once in our lives.

Someone I went to language school with said it was harder for her to remember conversations in a foreign language over ones in her native language, and I wonder if this is true for me as well, or if it at least takes more effort to remember things.

In case you were wondering about dreams, I dream in three languages (or at least I think I do), because the people who appear in my dreams will speak whichever language they would normally use.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 7:31 AM on April 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't know how much of this is specific to my being a PoC learning English in the U.S., but:

1. Yes, at first it was intensely frustrating to speak in the new language. I would have this thought like,

"Working from home is, meh, six of one, half a dozen of the other. On the one hand, best commute ever. On the other, cafeteria is run by an incompetent who mistakes a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain for an ICE degree. How about you?"

and then I would say,

"WNL. How do you do?"

And then I would force myself to look calm and attentive while swearing inside.

2. I've never had trouble connecting two statements on the same topic because they were in different languages, except for the expected difficulty understanding one of them in the first place.

I do still sometimes have trouble where I revert inappropriately to my native language. When I am with my family and my English-monolingual wife, I will often speak to her in one dialect of Chinese. When she becomes confused, I sometimes translate into a different dialect of Chinese.

I still notice English as English, whereas my native language I don't notice that there are words intermediating our communication. But I am actually much more competent in English at this point.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:09 AM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

So I'm not sure how you (and others here) are defining bilingual. To me it's quite different from fluency. I gained fluency in Korean as an adult (late 20s) with intensive language study in Seoul (9 months) followed by three years living in Seoul while in a graduate program in area studies that was half in Korean, half in English. I am far far far from bilingual. Friends I considered to be bilingual in Korean and English could write and speak at different levels of formality in both languages, engage in wordplay, could translate in either direction. I was fluent, but I could only translate into English, my primary language. I wrote with an inappropriate informality for academic contexts, even though I was writing a paper about the intersection of feminism and nationalism in post-occupation Korea. I had the vocabulary and contextual knowledge to read and discuss many political and societal issues, but at the same time, the comedy shows on tv often mystified me. I had to deliberately learn a whole host of onamotapoeia words.

Becoming fluent as an adult was a slow blossoming. Like many others have said, I felt like I had a different personality in Korean, but I hated this, because early on this personality was externally imposed ("oh, you are so composed and quiet") due to my lack of Korean language skills. As I improved my Korean, I felt new rooms open up in my mind and in the world. I would have scraps of Korean sentences pop up in my mind's ear, would react to input in Korean first (and not in English, which then had to be translated into Korean). I felt the laboriousness of living in my non-primary language recede, but I definitely still consciously practiced. My friendships and relationships with Koreans (even those fluent in English) shifted too, but I definitely still retreated into English when I wanted to make sure I was expressing myself correctly. I started to be able to make a few puns on purpose. I started reading comics. I began to increase the levels of formality I could use. But I still feel keenly the gap between my English language abilities and my Korean language abilities. And now that it's been over a decade since I left Seoul, I mourn the diminishing fluency. I am confident that if I put in the time (and made the space) I could regain fluency much more quickly this time around, but it is a use it or lose it situation for me.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:30 AM on April 25, 2020

"Friends I considered to be bilingual in Korean and English could write and speak at different levels of formality in both languages, engage in wordplay, could translate in either direction."

I don't think this is a particularly functional definition of bilingual because many people who clearly are bilingual, for example, heritage speakers who grew up speaking the language at home, would not meet this criteria. Of course, "bilingual," "fluent," all sort of lack a solid definition. But I think that is way too strict of a definition.

I really really feel spamandkimchi's second paragraph though, and the process of going from an imposed personality to one that is ever more authentic.
posted by wooh at 9:03 AM on April 25, 2020

I work at a little family run business, which is pretty much just me and my boss (70 years old, from Spain). He moved to canada when he was 40, and I love to listen to him talk about "becoming english".

He still mostly just uses just his Spanish idioms and metaphors, and says them in english. Most of them still make sense, and it is very charming to have someone use an unfamiliar idiom to you. Like, instead of "cut from the same cloth" he will say "cut with the same scissors". Lots of stuff like that - "easy as eating bread" "healthy as a pear". Anyways, it's really fun, and it's one of my favourite things, so I wouldn't worry too much about not being able to use your old sayings.

Some advice I was given as an adult language-learner is to just embrace that you aren't a native speaker. To start, don't worry about your accent, don't worry about being able to say things perfectly, throw in an english word if you don't know the translation. if your grammar is off, you aren't going to get in trouble, people are going to know you're not local anyways, and they will appreciate your effort more than your perfection. Try to transition to your new language still speaking as you normally would, if badly, rather than sticking to the pimsleur beginner words. I'm not even close to fluent in portuguese, but having even SOME of a second language feels amazing. Spanish would have been more useful for me, but I like to pretend I'm going to live in Brazil eventually, so I am more motivated to learn portuguese.

I think your awareness of the language you're speaking in has a lot to do with your comfort level. Like, I am very aware of what conversations I have in portuguese vs english, because I only feel confident in one of those two. But a lot of the truly multi-lingual people I know don't even seem aware of which language they are in in the moment, let alone in their memory. A lot of my friends when I was younger grew up in french immersion school and households, and they would sometimes call me and start speaking to me in french, and I would say "hey! you're in french!" and they would say "am I?" My roommate in college would often speak french accidentally in the morning when she was tired and I think it just felt more natural. Sometimes my boss will speak to me in spanish and I will try to answer in spanish (or spanuguese, really, I don't know spanish) and it will take him a moment to realize that he initiated it. Based on this I don't think you'll need to collate your conversations.

The hardest thing for me who is not fluent, is to try to stay present in conversations. I'm very able to get stuck on an unfamiliar word or a sentence I couldn't parse, or start thinking about how phrase my answer to a question, and miss what the person is actually saying. This is a bad way to have a conversation.
posted by euphoria066 at 9:55 AM on April 25, 2020

I have studied languages to varying degrees of proficiency and the moment I remember that relates to what you’re talking about was at Middlebury, the summer I was doing the equivalent of third year Spanish.

I got there with very rudimentary skills. At Middlebury, as you may or may not know, you’re required to speak the target language at all times, like you actually sign a pledge and if you are observed speaking English or indeed any language you aren’t studying, they can tell you to pack your bags. It’s more of a gimmick than a pedagogical strategy if you ask me but everyone is pretty observant.

So I spent the first couple of weeks feeling like my personality had evaporated. It was very frustrating. I was perfectly functional; I could always talk my way around to what I needed, but I am used to putting something of myself into utterances. The most representative woe was that I couldn’t be funny in Spanish.

I had studied Russian to a greater degree of proficiency that I think most people would call fluency and missed that feeling of having a personality, even if it’s a slightly different personality than you have in your native language. By the time I left, I was seeing the beginning of that, though without much of the cultural stuff. (I did have a good friend there who shared my enthusiasm for Almodovar and we would express ourselves referentially by little quotes. “¡Estoy harta de ser buena!”)

It takes a really long time, especially past prime language learning years. But even a little bit of it is really satisfying. It is like having a second person you can be, a little, even if some of the flavor of that person is from your distinctive non native idiosyncrasies. Just having a second set of phonetics feels like a magic trick sometimes.
posted by less of course at 10:09 AM on April 25, 2020

I am bilingual (English and German), currently working on becoming trilingual (Spanish.) I also study other languages various goals (conversational French, reading ability in Swedish, etc.) and am an experienced foreign language / second language teacher.

You asked what being bilingual feels like, and I'd say: it feels pretty normal because it's been years in the making. It means that I know I'm "smarter" than I used to be but also that I have dumb moments where my brain feels slower because I'm processing more information. It means having different words for different emotions and seeing how certain languages feel right for certain situation. It's being able to take part more in other cultures, to get to know people better, and to realize how little I know compared to what's out there.

Unless you grow up exposed to both (or multiple languages)*, your journey to being bilingual will be long and arduous. It will be very rewarding as you achieve a language milestone but also very frustrating as you linger at plateaus and aren't learning as fast as you would hope. Becoming bilingual as an adult is about hard work, exposure and experiences in the target language, and knowing how you learn best, and being patient with yourself. Even in the best case scenario (you're living in Mexico, you use only Spanish 24/7, you have formal classes -- having all three of which are unrealistic for most adults), it will take years. And that's OK!

Definitely have long-term goals -- and you can totally become bilingual as an adult -- but for now, as a language learning professional, I'd recommend on noticing and celebrating the small victories just as much. For example, for reading: you start understanding basic signage, then you can read ads, you can skim newspaper articles, you understand 1/2 of a song's lyrics, etc. Those little moments will add up to eventual fluency.

It should also be mentioned that, when it comes to speaking -- pronunciation, lack of fear, etc. -- it can be or at least seem easier to pick up a language when you're young. However, to become fully fluent by most standards, you also need to have formal education in both languages. There are plenty of speakers of multiple languages who don't have any formal education in one and, therefore, can speak it but not write it, etc. The fact that you're already literate in one language will mean it's easier to become literate in another! You already have a fully developed personality so, while it'll be more limited in Spanish for a long time, you always can take a break and reconnect with yourself in English. Try to focus less on what you can't do at present in that target language and focus on what you can do!
posted by smorgasbord at 11:35 AM on April 25, 2020

I am fluent in three languages, now, but I picked up the third in the last ten years (post 40yo). And that has not been a joyful experience. I kind of want to say it has been a fascinating, excrutiating, brutal misery with emphasis on the fascinating. Part of this is because I learned the other two languages in childhood and they are both a big part of my "identity." Whereas this third interloper... wow. As my wife has mentioned, "You're not funny in German." I'm also not charming or particularly persuasive. On the other hand, I kind of love German; the 'proper' kind, not the coffee-shop German I mostly speak. German writing, done well, is really lovely. But my relationship with the language is only about eight years old and so whole spectra of emotions have never been processed (which is a weird thing, how things are a little bit different in the other languages and I will never know the surprise of the first time experiencing something, the and then talking about it and processing it emotionally, in German. Like having kids, or a car accident, or breaking a bone. I just haven't done these things and so... this might be a plus, actually. Yeah, I'll go with that, but for lacking this huge history of experiences, I doubt I wil ever have as profound a 'relationship' with German as I do the other two languages.

And there's a universe of cultural touchstones I have zero access to and will always shut me out of a certain collegiality. I find this really hard. Plus the fact that when I get caught out in conversation, I have to really work to make sure I make sense, in a way I don't in English or French. And every third person asks me if I'm from the UK or at least what kind of foreigner am I? (Which is boring and alienating (worst is other parents from the school who wonder at my 'really very competent German' Wow. (But an enormously valuable learning experience! But also, 'Fuck you.' I just want to shoot the shit about something banal.) On the other hand, our old babysitter was from Siberia, looks 'Asian' speaks English, German, Russian and Buriat and wow, the stories she had to tell.) And, lastly, I really feel the deficit in my German writing.

It's good. Do it. It's fucking hard and weird - but interesting as hell and totally worth-while.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:23 PM on April 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

It takes time, it takes immersion, it takes experience. I started learning Japanese at 18; twenty-odd years later I consider myself essentially bilingual. Other people have already touched on a lot of good points, so just a couple of additions:

Cultural references will come, given time and practice. Maybe not exactly the same as a native speaker, but it's not like all native speakers of any given language have exactly the same cultural referents either. At this point I can make a joke based on the opening lines of a famous Japanese novel, or understand why people call the coda from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony the "Doraemon" theme. Time spent immersed in the relevant culture really does do it; that's all there is.

Memory: I find myself not unusually remembering Japanese conversations in English, or the other way around. It doesn't matter; the important points stay, your mind just stops worrying about which words it uses to express them.

I'm finding it frustrating now to study a third language, because I want to leap to the degree of linguistic and cultural (sociolinguistic) fluency I have in Japanese, while knowing intellectually that it takes years to get there. Given the years, though, it shouldn't be impossible for any of us.
posted by huimangm at 3:42 PM on April 25, 2020

I am a native English speaker, but Russian is the first language I speak most days. As a family, we have been pretty good about language discipline, but the lockdown has seen single sentences veering through Russian , English and Bashkir.

I guess the experience for me in becoming fluent in Russian post-teens is that the feeling of "effort" has faded away, both in speaking and understanding, and also I don't perceive people as "speaking Russian" any more – they're just "speaking". I guess socially there's also the element of preferring people who speak both to speak Russian with me: I remember asking people to speak English, but it wouldn't occur to me now.

I spent a bit of time watching classic films and trashy TV, in order to better get the weird references that people make. The Russian literary canon is massive, but I read selected works and memorised some poetry, enough to seem more-or-less competent. The same way someone trying to fit in in English might watch Monty Python and The Simpsons. Once you can reference Pushkin to describe a late-autumn day, people start talking to you like a competent fellow-speaker, and you learn more as part of those personal relationships.

I guess one thing which develops with fluency is the ability to see how other people are speaking the language. If you can do an impression of someone else, you've grasped some of the range of expression there. It also gives you the opportunity to learn from the two categories of people like you and people you like.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:06 PM on April 25, 2020

Response by poster: Wow, this has been an unexpectedly robust response. Thank you to everyone who has shared your experience.

I have a long road ahead of me, but it’s much easier to get started when I have a realistic idea of where I’m headed.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:14 AM on April 26, 2020

I also wonder about memory. Will I have two different contextual memories for conversations? Will it be work to collate ongoing conversations that take place one day in English in the next day in Spanish?

I'm sure everyone is different, but this is absolutely not the case for me. Conversations I have in Spanish used to get stored in my head in English (my first language) - I couldn't remember the exact words someone had said in Spanish, but I could remember clearly the whole conversation as I had translated it in my head. It's like the dialogue went through a decoder ring and I stored it decoded. That changed as I got more fluent because Spanish words started feeling more like English words in my head, so I didn't have to decode. At no point did I ever have separate Spanish and English memories. They just merged. I never, ever had to "switch modes" or convert filetypes or any other metaphor. It's more like I grafted Spanish onto my language tree and it slowly merged into the whole.

This is helped along by the existing bilingual Spanglish culture in the US, I think. It's very common and natural to blend the languages and just pick whichever word you feel like using in that moment - there's a beautiful freedom in it, a real ownership of language with no regard for borders.

I'm guessing you'll likely be working with bilingual adults; you can and should consider them an example for the end state of being bilingual as an adult. If they learned both languages as children, that doesn't ... really change much about the end state, in my experience. They took a different path to get there and will always be ahead of you on that path, but being a bilingual adult is pretty much the same no matter how you get there.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 1:07 PM on April 27, 2020

I grew up English and Dutch bilingual and am fluent in both, however the bilingualism makes clear what would be hidden if I spoke only one language which is that in both I have areas where I am stronger on vocabulary.

All my technical and business vocabulary, for instance, is purely in English. It's never a problem since these are areas that even Dutch people educated entirely in the Netherlands often deal with in English, but it is immediately apparent to me that my Dutch fluency comes to a screeching halt when I have to discuss my job. Interestingly, my other high-register Dutch vocab is fine and I can discuss literature and philosophy in Dutch with no problem.

Speaking multiple languages makes it obvious by comparison when you have used one language mostly for a particular purpose and not in other contexts.

I think that the intermediate period of learning, can be really taxing and feel stressful for the kind of highly educated person who usually sets out to learn a non-heritage language as an adult. That's because the gap between the grammatically perfect, contextually appropriate, reference-rich speech you can produce in your L1 and your L2 will be so obviously apparent. You will spend time feeling totally mute because you cannot say the clever thing you have though of.

I have learned German and French to a pretty good standard as an adult and with both I went through quite a long period where I felt like I was not making much progress. Particularly for speaking, there can be rapid periods of progress if you force yourself into immersion situations and make use of the passive knowledge you have acquired.

As soon as I could read, with a dictionary, some of the less complex cultural touch-stones of French literature, I did. Also, feel free to cheat and find note sets intended for lazy high schoolers to memorise key quotes. Remember that most people quoting Shakespeare in English will quote only a few of the best known lines from 4? 5? of the best known plays. When was the last time you heard someone make a Troilus and Cressida joke?
posted by atrazine at 2:22 AM on April 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

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