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).



In some situations, one language works better than others.  For example, there is no perfect translation in Spanish for the word “awkward.”  We can say “uncomfortable” (incómodo) or “clumsy” (torpe), but there’s no catch-all word that so perfectly embodies those people and situations that are, well, awkward.  However, while English triumphs in some cases, it is inferior in others: words such as schadenfreude (German for the act of taking pleasure in someone else’s pain) have no worthwhile English equivalent .

Narrowing it down to just Spanish v. English, more often than not, I find that Spanish does a better job at conveying many emotions and concepts.  The language is replete with sayings (some useful, like “Hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo,” which tells you that the weather doesn’t really warm up until “May 40th”, and others not so useful, like “con esto y un bizcocho, hasta mañana a las ocho” which literally means “with this and some cake, until tomorrow at 8:00” and figuratively means “yeah, ok, moving on…”), exclamations (a common expression of anger/frustration is “me cago en…” or “I shit in/on…” followed by anything from la leche [milk] to Dios [God] to tus muertos [your dead relatives]), diminutives (why say chica when you can say chiquilla [in Andalucía], fácil when you can say facilito, or sol when you can say solecito?), and words that I just wish we had in English.

In Spanish, sobremesa is the time spent sitting and chatting at the table after a meal.  Duende is the possession of a certain spirit, passion and/or talent displayed during a performance, often flamenco.  Aprovechar is a more word-economy-friendly way of saying “to take advantage of.”  Enchufe (literally: plug) is when you get a job because of who you know, not what you know.  Tener ganas de (to be looking forward to something or to want to do something), and tener/coger cariño a (to feel affection, romantic or otherwise, toward someone) work better for me in Spanish, while estar nervioso drives me crazy, because it can mean you feel anxious, nervous, excited, restless or stressed…too many meanings for one word if you ask me.

Another one of these great Spanish words is papeleo, coming from the word papel, meaning paper.  Papeleo can mean paperwork, but it has a distinctively negative connotation, as if to mean “that obnoxious pain-in-the-ass government bureaucracy red tape paperwork that’s making me want to jump off of a cliff.”  And that is just what I’ve had to deal with as I work through the process of renewing my foreigner’s residency card (oh, did I forget to mention?  I’m staying here in Madrid for a second year!).  I spared you the details when I applied for my visa last summer and the original residency card in the fall, and I’ll spare you again this time around.  Instead, here’s a recap: after waiting for months for various documents from my school and the Ministry of Education, I finally have everything I need to drop off my application (nine forms/documents carefully filled out and photocopied in duplicate, plus one fee paid at the bank); then, with a stamped form  showing that my renewal application process has been started, I must pay another fee and then go to a different office to request an authorization to leave and return to Spain while my application is still being processed, and then when I return in the fall I may or may not receive an appointment to go in for fingerprinting and I may or may not ever actually receive a new tangible residency card and I may or may not end up with a mere “note” on my name in “the system” saying I’m here legally.

Lost?  You’re not alone.  Read that whole sentence in one breath?  Me neither.  But somehow, I haven’t been deported yet and I have faith I won’t be in the future.  Somehow, these things work out.  For now, this:



functionally bilingual

Many people ask me if I’m bilingual now.  The answer: a big, whopping NO.  Bilingual, to me, means complete fluency.  It means 100% mastery of all grammatical structures.  It means a vocabulary equally as big (or close to) that of one’s native language.  I speak well.  I may even speak very well.  But there is no way I’m bilingual.

Rather, I consider myself functionally bilingual.  I still make grammatical errors, I still have a lot of vocab to learn, and I still forget vocab words I know after not using them for a long time.  I’ve incorporated a solid amount of slang and idioms to my vernacular, but there are plenty that rest outside of my circle of knowledge.  But I’m functional.  I know enough to express myself in any situation, either using the appropriate terminology or using what I know to describe what I need to say.

I have many situations down to the T: introducing myself, ordering a glass of wine, asking for directions.  There are many others where I don’t even hesitate.  But sometimes, before approaching a completely new situation, I do a quick WordReference search to arm myself with the appropriate vocabulary.

Take, for example, my first Spanish haircut.  Yesterday, before going to the hair salon, I looked up the word for layers (rather than saying “I want some pieces in the back to be slightly shorter than the rest”) and split ends (rather than saying “the ends of my hairs are broken and in pieces”).  Everything at the salon seemed to be going quite smoothly, until the hairdresser asked me to tip my head forward, and I heard  the sound of an electric razor (like the ones men use to trim their beards or sideburns) buzzing over my shoulder.  My heart skipped a few beats, and images flashed before my eyes of my long thick curly locks blowing, model-style, in a spring breeze and then lifting completely off my head and off into the horizon.  And then another image appeared, that of the currently popular rapada hairstyle here in Spain.  In my subsequent moment of panic (did I really say “shave half my head” instead of “I just want a trim and a touch-up on my layers”?!), neither English nor Spanish words came to mind.  As I regained my senses, I started to wonder if perhaps this was just the normal way of trimming hair in Spain.  I soon realized that Carmen, my stylist, was indeed simply trimming my ends with an electric razor.  It would never be my method of choice, but the results seem to be just fine: not the best haircut of my life, but not a train-wreck either.  I will note, however, that after consulting with a few Spanish friends, scissors remain the instrument of choice at most Spanish hair salons.  I suppose this shows that while I’m functionally bilingual, there are still all sorts of cultural quirks I have yet to learn.