Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for learners. Catch up on past installments here.
Hello, learners! We're back this week with a question that crosses the mind of every learner—and it's especially relevant for those of you aiming for high proficiency levels in your new language.
Our question this week:
What a natural question for monolinguals to have! You get used to thinking, speaking, and even dreaming in one language, so what is it like to have a second (or third, or sixth, or 20th) one rolling around in your brain? It's sort of hard to describe!
Bilingualism is more complicated than it might seem: There are many kinds of multilinguals, and nearly all multilinguals have different proficiencies and degrees of comfort with each language. And those proficiencies and the balance between languages changes over your whole life, too! Knowing multiple languages (or dialects) is a balancing act of turning language "volumes" up or down depending on the situation.
This week I talked to some multilinguals at Duolingo to get their reflections on what it's like to know multiple languages!
Being bilingual… feels amazing!
Rick (Marketing Analyst): I feel like a language wizard! It's especially cool when people comment on how quickly you're able to switch between two languages.
Anonymous (Software Engineer): Life is richer and fuller because of the range of people you can talk to, conversations you can eavesdrop on overhear, and music, books, art and memes you can appreciate. Although we as humans speak different languages, we share the same emotions, feelings and experiences and it's nice to have access to more vocabulary with which to talk about them.
Ramsey (Assessment Scientist): Having experienced both monolingualism and multilingualism, it was kind of transcendent to acquire this new metalinguistic awareness, realizing how arbitrary and flexible language is.
Nat (Senior Software Engineer): Whenever I read work translated from Russian to English, I find myself sometimes translating it back to Russian in my head, especially if it is a turn of phrase that is obscured in translation. It feels like a little inside joke every time!
Aspen (Quality Assurance Specialist): It’s exciting to help people who only speak Spanish. Most recently a man from Honduras was lost at the airport and I was able to help him get a taxi to where he needed to go! I also had a Lyft driver once from Venezuela who told me his story of being a refugee and moving to America. Being able to connect to others in their native language is something so special.
Being bilingual… is full of surprises
Rick: Sometimes I dream about my English-speaking friends but they speak Dutch in my dream… which is weird!
Kolja (Data Scientist): I often find myself thinking of a joke but not being able to tell it to anyone because it is either in a language the other person does not understand or is a play on words in multiple languages and therefore very niche.
Anonymous (Software Engineer): Some things are said *louder* in certain languages. I learned about the Monroe Doctrine and Operation Condor (US-backed military dictatorships in Central and South America) only after learning Spanish and reading Spanish books about the modern history of Latin America. Thanks to NYT coverage in French, I learned about the crushing debt that Haiti was forced to assume under the threat of war after successfully gaining their independence from France.
Being bilingual… means constant change
It's normal for multilinguals' languages to change over time, depending on how often they use each language and what they hear most often in the community around them. At different times, especially over the course of months or years, multilinguals will typically be more proficient in one language or another, remember words faster in one, and even have different accents! Languages continue to fluctuate in your brain, even for lifelong bilinguals.
Celena: Being bilingual to me means constantly learning and relearning and working to maintain my heritage language, since I don't have anywhere near the same exposure to Chinese these days as I do English. It's clear to me that it's not as simple as just becoming bilingual and then staying at the same level of bilingual forever—language attrition is so real.
Rick: It feels like I don't speak any of my languages fully. When I speak Dutch with my family, I have trouble remembering some Dutch words and expressions, so I opt to use the English ones instead, so my Dutch conversations are like 20% English. When I speak English, I have the same problem, but in the opposite way.
Elise (Learning Scientist): My Dutch friends and family always say I sound so American now, which I never believed—until I listened to a Dutch voice message I sent a friend. I was like, “Wow, I don't actually sound like that, do I?” It sounds like a very fluent Dutch speaker whose first language is English. It almost feels like my mouth and tongue take one shape for English and another one for Dutch, but since they're always set to English now it takes me a while to switch back, and I never fully can switch it back to Dutch.
Being bilingual… is a constant game of context switching
It's very rare for people to feel "balanced" in all their languages—it's natural to prefer one language to another, especially for certain needs or contexts, and multilinguals are also keenly aware of the subtle differences between languages!
Lidia (Software Engineer Intern): You start directly translating things from one language to the other, and in your head it makes sense, but to other people you might be saying nonsense. 😂 Sometimes I feel frustrated when one language has a better expression or way to say a specific thing, but you need to speak in the other language.
Elise: For me, being non-binary and using gender neutral pronouns comes very natural in English but much less so in Dutch. Talking about my PhD research in Dutch is also basically impossible. On the other hand, I'm better at math in Dutch bc that's how I learned it, and early memory family stories are hard to tell in English.
Ming (Senior Software Engineer): One thing that I’ve noticed and struggled with is the complete inadequacy in talking about specific topics in a language despite fluency otherwise. I find it impossible to talk about being queer in Chinese, and it bleeds into my relationships with people I talk to in Chinese.
Being bilingual… is getting used to the wrong language sneaking in
Our brains are built to handle multiple languages, and there is a lot of overlap in the brain connections that handle each language. That's why mixing languages in codeswitching (like Spanglish) is common, and it's also why it can be hard to keep languages separate!
Xingyu (Software Engineer): When I learn a third language, I find my brain losing language control and start bursting out words in Chinese.
Lucy (Data Scientist): I've tried to use the local language when traveling and constantly accidentally speak in Chinese instead.
Elisabeth (Software Engineer): Speaking usually comes out as "whatever non-fluent language I studied most recently."
Julie (Software Engineer): I speak Chinese. There's still some Japanese kanji that I constantly read with Chinese hanzi pronunciations. Like in the sentence 私は五歳です (watashi wa gosai desu, "I am 5 years old"), 五 means 5 in both Japanese and Mandarin, but they are pronounced differently. It's "go" in Japanese, but in my head I pronounce it as "wǔ" (like in Mandarin). I literally cannot turn on "Japanese mode"! It leads to a really strange phenomenon where I can look at a Japanese sentence and understand its meaning way faster than I can actually read it.
Elise: I never remember whether proverbs are English or Dutch anymore, so I'll say stuff like "Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve" (a Dutch idiom). It gets especially funky when there's related but slightly different proverbs, like "two birds with one stone" and twee vliegen in een klap (two flies in one smack)—I'll say stuff like "two flies with one stone."
Being bilingual… is a language style all your own
Lucy: Your internal monologue is its own language that only you really understand. I grew up with but am not fluent in Chinese, so my internal monologue is a mishmash of English interspersed with the Chinese words I hear around me most frequently and that I use with family.
Celena: Sometimes I feel like my brain has different language "modes": If I'm in "Chinese mode" and am expecting to be spoken to in Chinese, I will sometimes completely fail to understand if someone speaks to me in English—which I am definitely more fluent in! It takes me a moment to readjust. Once this resulted in a train wreck of an interaction with a Chinese airport employee who could not figure out what language to speak to me in because he kept switching languages faster than I could switch brain modes and I barely comprehended anything he said despite it all being in languages that i know…
Ramsey: It’s cool *and* weird to sometimes think of a word or expression first in a second language, or to notice that the way I’m saying something in English is the result of influence from a second language.
Your very own superpower
You'll find joy and plenty of "Ah ha!" moments at all the stages of your learning journey, and training up your brain to use a new language has benefits for learners of all ages! Whether your goal is ordering a coffee or living and studying in your new language, you're doing something good for yourself. 💚
For more answers to your language and learning questions, get in touch with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.