In Translation

The bilingual experience in America comes with many entertaining and useful benefits, along with a few challenges.


digital artwork by Rachel Tian

In a country where most are fluent in only one language, being bilingual can be an adventure.

Rachel Tian, Staff Writer

As an American-born-Chinese kid, you could say that I grew up with the need to learn another language other than English: Mandarin. From the ages of seven to fourteen, I attended Pittsburgh Chinese School every Sunday to improve the fluency of this foreign language, and it has allowed me to communicate with all of my family members back home with very few conflicts. I read, write, and speak Mandarin on a daily basis without giving it much thought.

Most high school students learn a language other than English. However, very few of us have the opportunity to really use a second language, whether it be Spanish, French, German, Latin, or any other foreign language, in our own homes. Because school is the only time for practice, the grammatical rules and vocabulary terms tend not to come naturally and often feel like repetitive routines of short-term memorization.

Recently, I have been thinking about the concept of bilingualism and how the brain really handles the content of a whole different tongue along with a native language.

Is a bilingual person smarter than a monolingual person? Is his or her brain wired differently from the majority of the American population? Does one language hinder the fluency of another?

As the years have gone by, I have noticed that when I tell people about my bilingualism they seem thoroughly impressed and eager for me to translate random sentences into Mandarin. Only around 22% of the United States population  is fluent in more than one language, so that makes me a part of the minority. I’ve gradually come to love these translation conversations, as they make me feel somewhat sophisticated and unique. Occasionally, I’ve even translated for western tourists in China.

My mind didn’t even process the change, and I continued speaking like a foreigner, causing my friend no small amount of confusion.”

Additionally, my entertainment selection is probably wider than those who are monolingual. TV shows, songs, and news channels that are available in the English or Mandarin language are open to my viewing, and they can keep me satisfied for hours. Senior Grace Lee, who is fluent in Korean, has the same experience.

“It’s nice to listen to KPOP songs and understand the meaning behind the lyrics,” she said, adding that the music keeps her mind “alert and occupied.”

Another benefit I’ve noticed is that I can talk in public without feeling the need to whisper and block off strangers. Occasionally, when my family is at a restaurant, we want to have a private conversation without letting other tables eavesdrop on our personal lives. This is when bilingualism strikes gold. It’s relieving to speak a foreign language that people most likely do not understand, and I can gossip to my parents all I want at dinner.

In a more scientific sense, studies have shown that being bilingual benefits the executive function, a “command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems, and performing various other mentally demanding tasks,” according to The New York Times. Basically, a body of research shows that bilingual people tend to stay more focused and hold a stronger memory — likely the result of years of forced practice, quick memorization does become a handy tool.

However, I will say that I’ve definitely noticed some setbacks. Just the other day, I was having a normal conversation with my friend in English. I was in the middle of telling a compelling story, when I unconsciously transitioned to Mandarin. My mind didn’t even process the change, and I continued speaking like a foreigner, causing my friend no small amount of confusion. Eventually, I unconsciously transitioned back to English and finished my story. When I finished talking, she asked me, “Did you realize you totally switched languages in between?” I was dumbfounded at how I could mix my languages up without realization.

I often make up expressions or metaphors in English or Mandarin. Going back and forth between the two occasionally toys with my brain, and I lose sight of whether a phrase works in English or in Mandarin. I will say something like “it’s raining cats and dogs” in Mandarin to my mom, who looks as puzzled as if I’d spoken to her in Finnish. Along the same lines, I often get excited to share jokes or stories told in one language, only to find that they’re untranslatable.

Another study has found that bilingual people have greater difficulties establishing an extremely solid vocabulary range in one language than people who only speak one language. Bilinguals experience more “tip of the tongue moments than monolingual peers.” I constantly become frustrated when I can’t find the right word in English, but I can in Mandarin, and vice versa. I often feel stuck between barriers due to imperfect translation, and communication becomes a burden.

Regardless, I don’t believe bilingualism makes me any better or worse than others; it is just another interesting skill that can be utilized with many positives and a few complications. Our bilingual brains may generally memorize information faster, but as with so many other apparent differences between groups of people, it’s more a matter of what we have in common than in what sets us apart.