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The Exhaustion of Being Bilingual


When Billy and I were dating, we lived about an hour apart. Similar to many ooey-gooey couples, we spent a lot of time on the phone. A LOT.

If you've ever tried learning another language, you know that speaking your second language on the phone is infinitely harder than in person. (Whenever the phone rang when we lived in Argentina, I would basically scream and hide... so it wouldn't know I was there...)

Billy later told me how tiring those phone marathons were for him. He almost always collapsed into sleep seconds after hanging up.

These days, English is not really an issue for him, but heavily bilingual environments can still be exhausting for us all. The first day my mother-in-law arrived, she was talking to him in one ear in Spanish, and I was talking to him in the other in English.

The fact that he was maintaining both conversations is a pretty good indication of his bilingual superpowers. There was only one moment when he looked at me in the eyes and started talking right to me in Spanish. I was all, "Umm.. do you hear what you're saying to me right now?"

But I was super impressed with my mother-in-law because I know first-hand how tiring it can be to stay in a home of your second language. In fact, I've often thought, I bet my in-laws think I'm a very slug-like person because I'm always tired with a glazed over look. But it's only (well, mostly) because the little hamster in my brain is running so fast, trying to follow conversations and think of responses.

I assume that one day (if I ever become more fluent in Spanish) some of the exhaustion will dissipate like it did for Billy. Is that true? Do you share this bilingual exhaustion? 

Image credit: Umberto Salvagnin - And, oh my word, am I into cat photos now? 

7 comments

  1. I think it does get better. I don't remember the total exhaustion while I was in Bible school (in Spanish), but I had 2 years of college level Spanish before that as well as an intensive month long course at the beginning of the semester. And 75% of my classmates were English speakers so we didn't speak Spanish all day long either. By the end of the semester it was a really weird mix of Spanglish which I suppose is what your house sounds like a lot! Do you ever speak a sentence in English, but substitute a Spanish word for something because it's either shorter/easier or gets the meaning across better?
    I do know that we had a lot of Spanish in church last week (which, oh, the memories that brought up!) and I LOVED being about to understand both the people speaking as well as the interpreters. I was making comments to Brian about some of the translations. ;)

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  2. All that to say, I think the most exhausting times were actually at church the first half of the semester. Religious language is a whole other vocabulary to learn and church was like 3 hours long. I could at least follow along in my Spanish/English Bible, but yeah... brain dead by the end of that! ;)

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  3. LOVE hearing your experiences, Krista! And yes, sometimes I do sub Spanish. That just happened yesterday, in fact, but now I can't remember what it was. I just heard myself say, "I don't know the word for that in English." Ha! What am I talking about? But I totally agree with you about "bodies of vocabulary." A new subset can make even the most bilingual folks have to work extra hard!

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  4. So true. And wow, you know a lot of languages! I love that your in-laws have decided to make you fluent. That's awesome! :)

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  5. Rachel9:44 AM

    I wish I knew a lot! I only know English and Spanish. The others, I'm not even close!

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  6. Just found you from Latina-ish!


    I identify with this so much! When visiting my husband's Mexican family in NYC, it took me longer than necessary to recognize the toll this brain fatigue was taking. Since my husband is fluent in both languages, I felt like he didn't realize that I didn't understand what was going on, and I would get so easily frustrated with him for not translating. He'd turn to me and say "Ready to go?" and I'd reply--- not nicely---"I have no idea what's going on."


    Fortunately, my spanish has improved vastly; at least I have some idea of what's going on, even when I can't respond appropriately. And now we're just aware of the fatigue and the emotional side of it. Still by the end of a trip, I'll realize my brain has turned off and I've stopped listening and trying to understand.

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  7. Hi Josie! So nice to meet you! I can relate 100% to the sudden turn and "Ready to go?" It makes me crazy! LOL. And I do reach a similar point where I realize I've stopped listening as closely because my brain is just so tired. I hope one day I reach a better place with my Spanish that I'm not so tired. :)

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