The pros and cons of being bilingual

Being bilingual is great, until it’s not


Being able to switch between two or more languages in conversation is pretty cool, until your brain starts malfunctioning and you momentarily forget how to speak. This week, a study from the University of Washington found that bilingual babies will have developed “better” brains before they even utter a first word. But it’s not all motor development and A* grades.

Granted, the struggles aren’t awful, but there are pros and cons to being fluent in more than one language.

Pro: It’s a conversation starter

It’s attractive. People will always tell you that they find you cultured, worldly, or super intelligent. Think about it –  everyone does seem much hotter when you go abroad. In reality, though, you didn’t have a choice about learning an extra language. You either picked it up as a baby or you were forced to learn it when you moved to another country.

Con: You will always be better at one than the other

You will never use your languages in a balanced way, so often you have to “keep up” the others in order to remain fluent. For most of us, we use one language at home to communicate with our parents and another to speak to our friends. However if your family live far away from you, you will end up watching a lot of weird chat shows to keep up with the slang or reading books that are impossible to understand just to refresh your grammar.

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Most people won’t even realise that you first langauges isn’t English

Pro: It’s great for the CV

Employers dig an extra language: it distinguishes you, and makes you more marketable. Plus, the 21st century world is a globalised economy – those who speak another language can access and interact with more communities.

Con: Sometimes struggling to speak one language in a professional setting

Conversing in two languages at home is a bad trap to fall into. Often when talking to family members, you use whatever word comes to mind first. This is a dangerous habit: you will find you need a word in one language, but can only think of it in the other.

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They say that languages are a passport to a world of opportunity

Pro: It’s easier to learn other languages and it keeps our brains sharp

A few studies have suggested that bilinguals find it easier to learn another language than people who possess the knowledge of only one. Ever wonder how polyglots manage to learn to speak so many languages? It’s because if you look at a linguistic family tree, you can see how they evolve from one another over time and contain many similarities between them. Furthermore there are some studies which seem to suggest that bilingual patients with demential develop Alzheimer’s five years laters than those that spoke only one.

Con: Sometimes our brain fails us and we forget how to speak at all

When you hear one language and are speaking with the other at the same time, your brain goes slightly crazy and you forget how to speak completely. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you end up looking like you can’t communicate at all.

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You can probably converse to your immediate family in at least 3 different languages

Pro: You can be sneaky no one will ever know

For a laugh, you can teach your mates cheeky phrases and they won’t suspect a thing. Alternatively, you can bitch about people you don’t like in another language without them ever realising. However, I highly wouldn’t recommend doing the latter as it can backfire on you if one of them also secretly speaks that language.

Con: Being the Google translate of your friendship group

Your friends can’t seem to grasp the fact that all languages aren’t related, instead they think that you can communicate with anyone in the world. You will come to discover how heavily they rely on you when you’re travelling and none of you have internet. If someone approaches and speaks a different language to you all, your friends will all turn their heads and look to you to reply. That’s when you will realise that you have become the group’s interpreter.

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Even at a festival, you won’t forget where you come from

Pro: It helps you stay in touch with your roots

Although I moved to the UK when I was 10 and absorbed much of the surrounding culture, I never forget where I’m from because my mother frequently likes to remind me of proverbs that really don’t make much sense in English. Whenever I am reluctant to start an important task she likes to tell me that “eyes are afraid, but hands are doing the job”, which actually means, “you never know what you can do till you try”.

Con: Attempting  to translate a joke or a proverb to your friends and getting laughed at

You attempt to bring two worlds together by sharing a meaningful anecdote with the squad and you can just feel the eye rolls coming. I guess these things really do get lost in translation.

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Your peers often reminisce on the times they watched CBBC after preschool while you did this

Pro: You can be sassy when you hear people bitching about you in another language

Previously I mentioned that you can discuss other people right in front of them without them comprehending and this is where it all went wrong for the two Russian-speaking women on my train once. They were openly discussing that I was dressed “too provocatively” for my age and how I shouldn’t be surprised if men were to approach me only for “one thing”. It was summer, it was hot and I was wearing baggy shorts… Little did they know that I actually understood everything they were saying. My reply? Spasibo. Sure, I’m sassy.

Con: You can change personality when speaking in a different language

Apparently those that speak different languages can experience personality changes when switching from one to another. That must explain why we sound so angry when we’re on the phone to our parents.