Thursday, October 6, 2011

Living with Two or More Languages

As an expat in Brazil, I find that the vast majority of my expat friends speak English regardless of where they are from. I have always found their flexibility in switching between English and Portuguese intriguing. Since neither is their first language and they live in Brazil, it is actually quite normal. Though because I speak candidly to them in English, I find it amazing that they can have the same level of conversation in Portuguese. But of course, why wouldn't they be able to?

This begs you to ask: is it your home language, the languages you speak, where you live, or the company you keep that decides which you are most comfortable speaking? When you are a person of less flexible abilities than some of the multilinguals and world travelers out there, that crosses your mind.

What I find among these social nomads is that they have found a bridge. Don't get me wrong, they don't have the secret to the linguistic fountain of youth or anything like that. They do know, however, that the secret is acceptance, immersion, adaptation, and work.

That last one is the thing that surprisingly never comes up in multilingual talk. While some of had the  advantage of being raised with at least 2 languages from birth (not including me sadly), many had to earn their language stripes. That includes suffering through the pains of not understanding anyone where you are at, never being able to adequately share your feelings, and generally feeling lost.

Yet, once you learn a language, you will find yourself torn between the two. I have moments where I can't find an English word for something because it is much better in Portuguese. Honestly, descriptive words in Portuguese rock and I find I have a much easier time discussing the medical issues of my children in my second language. Not a shocker seeing my boys were born and are being raised here. Brazil, and in Portuguese, is where my Mommy vocabulary was born.

On the other hand, I can't express my own feelings worth a damn in Portuguese. It's a block and I can't seem to get past it. I can be quite direct in English, or so I am told, and I know I can come off as a Satanic Bitch in Portuguese. Alright, I can come off as a bitch in English too but I think I've figured that one out at this point in my life.

How about you? Is there one language you prefer in certain circumstances? Do you find yourself mixing more than one language as a means of expressing yourself?

*Motivation for this post came from an article on the Psychology Today site. 


  1. Rachel- I always love a post about learning language, since I'm at the beginning of the journey. It gives me hope!

    So funny about medical issues and language or you- everything I know about chickens I've learned here from my husband, and he doesn't have that vocabulary in English. It's funny for me when I hear myself say "she's chocando..." lol..why not just all Portuguese? IDK.

  2. I have always felt more confortable speaking English to animals and kids. When I would ride horses here, my lesson was in Portuguese but all my voice commands to the horse would be in English. I guess this is way I have been able to be so rigorously English only with my son.

  3. Fascinating topic. As someone fluent in three languages (and English is not my native one), I find that I can fairly easily switch across them but I tend to speak to you in whatever language you will speak to me in as my brain finds that easier to process..

    I agree with you, there are some words in Romance/Latin languages that just don't have an adequate replacement in English and viceversa, and I tend to mix too. I'm trying to learn Portuguese too now, as my boyfriend is Brazilian, but finding it challenging with the pronunciation :).

    I love reading your blog, keep it up!!

  4. Cussing and venting in your native language is always best. I have friends in the states from Serbia and Germany - they cuss in their native language. My dad is from Jamaica and he still cusses and vents in Patois.

    So go to it girl, scream out those SOBs and FUs in English and be proud. I know I do....LOL. There is nothing in Portuguese that equates.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. (sorry, somehow my last name got published in the comment, can you take that out? thanks!)

  7. For me it depends on the topic too, some things are easy in one language and some in the other. I actually find it kind of freeing sometimes talking about feelings not in English because I feel less self conscious (like, if it comes out sounding stupid, not my fault because it´s not my first language!)

  8. Because my husband's Portuguese is not as strong as my English, I always argue/dicuss important topics with him in his first language (English) to make sure he gets my point.

  9. Believe it or not, at present I feel more comfortable in Portuguese across the board. The only place I speak English here is inside the classroom, where of course I have to modify my language according to the level of the students - so it's not natural. And since I met, dated, and married my husband in Portuguese, all our conversations, nicknames and banter would just sound weird to me in English.

  10. That was a very interesting article, thanks for sharing! My French boyfriend and I use both languages to convey our emotions/feelings. In the beginning when my French wasn't that good I would express my feelings (especially when I was mad) in English, but now I'm confident enough in my French to tell him how I feel in my second language.

    I agree with you about some words working better in one language than in the other. Sometimes a French word more aptly describes my situation, or vice versa.

    You didn't mention it in your post, but in the article they talked about swearing, and I totally swear more easily in French than in English. I think it's because (like they said) the words are less emotionally charged (at first). But now when I hurt myself it's French curse words coming out of my mouth instead of English ones.

  11. I can totally curse in both now actually. I really like cursing in Portuguese and automatically do it when pissed on the street. For example, when some guy almost ran over my boys and I my response was loud and in Portuguese. Being pissed greatly improves my language skills for some reason.

    At home I curse in English or when it's anything little and you drop a shit or fuck. I do say those words. Going to bite me in the ass one day when they get added to the kiddos' vocabulary

  12. I have the same issue in France. I never in a million years thought I'd have to learn a new language as an adult. I lived most of my life in the middle east yet managed to avoid learning more than 5-6 words in arabic.

    Now, my french is "functional" I find trying to express myself a real challenge. I tend to just lose it every now and then to get my needs met in the post office or when out shopping. I feel like I'll never be fluent ... yet, like you, I often substitute a french word in an english sentence if it fits better - as a result my English is suffering and my French isn't really improving.

    I really admire those who can speak several languages with ease ... I feel that kids who have opportunity to be exposed to multiple languages have a real advantage ...

  13. My doctor laughed at me the other week; apparently I'm her only expat patient who uses Portuguese during the consult. It just seems more natural to me now. Six years of doing things in a foreign language means that for some stuff (doctor's appts included), I end up back translating if I decide to use English! But I don't think this is very normal...or at least, few people have admitted they have the same problem.

  14. I think I curse in French because I hear so much cursing in French from my husband, the old sailor.

    But like you I've been asked to get mad in English. He thinks I sound too harsh in French; I think he doesn't know how mad I can get! --RF

  15. Like Jennifer, I am just beginning to learn Portuguese, so this article doesn't completely apply to me yet. But, it's nice to hear from other second language learners who gained fluency only in adulthood. I have been so frustrated with my slow progress, despite being a language instructor myself! On the other hand, I can already see how I will only be able to think in Portuguese about some things I am learning here in Brazil. Thanks for this post!

  16. Hi! New follower from Bloggy Moms Blog Hop. :-)
    Great post! Although I DID take a couple years of spanish, I can really only speak one language. I find it facinating when others are multilingual. I really enjoyed the insight you shared here.