Inside the Bilingual Mind

Posted by:  |  Category: Bicultural Vida, Daily Blog


I think I have discovered the one disadvantage of bilingualism.

Because I often tutor in public places (bookstore, Starbucks), I have a lot of people-watching opportunities. What I am never prepared for, though, is the amount of people-listening that my brain wants to do. I can be teaching in English – usually describing how to approach an SAT problem – and also paying attention to the Spanish conversation at the next table. It is to be expected that you would overhear bits and pieces of private discussions in a public space, but what if it’s not just background noise and you hear every word?

It’s amusing that the one thing I have worked so hard to maintain is the same thing I wish I could shut off: the ability to eavesdrop on Spanish conversations!

Of course, I don’t care about strangers’ chit-chat in Spanish any more than in English, but I have to listen to double the conversations that a monolingual person does! (Especially in Orlando, there truly are about the same number of Spanish speakers as English.)

The positive side of this indirect snooping? I get repeated confirmation that people who are speaking their native language around me (in their eyes, a monolingual white American) are NOT talking about me! However stereotypical, the assumption that speaking a “foreign” language in front of English-speaking Americans is rude and must be for the purposes of talking about them perpetuates in many communities. At least I do not have to worry about a Spanish speaker caring more about what I am doing than about his or her own life – I know for sure that most of the time, they are talking about their own affairs just like English speakers!

I suppose I would have to delve into cognitive psychology to understand why my mind gets so hung up on the sounds of the Spanish language, sometimes to the point of overpowering my English thoughts. Instead, I’ll just look to hear about some of your experiences with this phenomenon.

A question for native speakers: do you pay attention to the conversations in the air around you in both English and Spanish? Does it sometimes seem like it’s more of an annoyance than a benefit? I wonder if it’s just my non-native way of listening to Spanish that makes me pay more attention to it.

photo by: nimble

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