musings on bilingualism

This past summer, I read a blog post that really stuck with me in El País, one of Spain’s largest national newspapers.

Pause.  Before I continue, a quick Spanish lesson:
You’re an asshole = Eres un capullo.

So, back to the blog post I read…

The first graf, translated into English and roles reversed so as to make sense to my audience, says the following: “If you’re a native English speaker, and someone yells at you ‘eres un capullo,’ it won’t offend you as much as if the same person shouts ‘you’re an asshole!'”  Even if you’re bilingual and know exactly what “eres un capullo” means.

The piece, inspired by Albert Costa’s research at the Universidad Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, goes on to explain that regardless of one’s level of proficiency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language, the emotional charge and weight of one’s mother tongue will always be stronger: insults sting more, compliments feel better, and lying is more difficult.  I may know exactly what capullo means, but I did not grow up with the hefty connotation of the word.  Asshole, on the other hand, was, for a long time, a sharp, forbidden term that I only heard adults say when they were angry; only years later, after I observed its use in context in the media and in real life, and watched the reaction it incited in others, did it become a part of my own vernacular.

Recently, I took a Spanish placement exam that confirmed I have a C1 level (on a scale, lowest to highest, of: A1-A2-B1-B2-C1-C2).  Even so, during my time in Sevilla and Madrid, I have had countless experiences in which it has been much easier to share personal information with others in Spanish, while it has been much more impactful to hear important news and receive compliments in English — not because of a lack of necessary vocabulary, but rather due to the weight each word and phrase carried.  At some level, pushed back behind more and more layers the more proficient you are, your second language will always be a translated code of your mother tongue, the words and phrases simply the output of a mental equation that originates in your nuanced native language (yes, even if you’ve reached the point at which you’re beyond proficient and thinking in language #2).  Sharing intimate information seems less scary when the words don’t have years of life experience hanging from them, while receiving a compliment seems less meaningful without said heft.  Bonita is a lovely word in Spanish, the syllables themselves more lyrical and attractive to the ear than the English ‘beautiful.’  But I know what ‘beautiful’ means.

When asked how much longer I plan to stay in Spain, I usually say that this school year will likely be my last.  Because, I say, even though it will break my heart to leave Madrid, home is always home, and I feel a pull to go back and start my “real life.”  Of course, my life here is “real:” I have a job, a bank account and a gym membership; I have friendships and joy and disappointment.  But there’s always that element of dreaminess when I think about living here.  No matter how much I adopt Spanish traditions and lifestyle, I have no familial roots nor history to tie me down to the land or the culture.  At times, don’t get me wrong, the flexibility this provides is liberating.  But it’s also usually the reason I cite as to why Madrid will never feel quite like home in the same way that the US does.

But maybe it goes beyond that — beyond the cultural artifacts of having lunch at 3pm and watching Semana Santa processions and eating jamón, to a lack of history that ties me to the language, in a way diluting the words that leave my mouth and enter my ears daily, cloaking this entire experience in a thinly-veiled fog…a fog that at times feels like the frustrating haze felt by someone with *almost* perfect vision before putting on their glasses in the morning, and at other times mirrors the magical mist of an enchanted forest.

The inspiration for this post, filled with additional findings from the Costa study, can be found here (en español).


1 thought on “musings on bilingualism

  1. I have often thought about just this. Even American English vs British English – British swears and insults sound like schoolyard insults to me. Like, when I was 5 and thought “punk” was a terrible swear.

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