Travel Tales

Quirks Of My Semi-Bilingual Brain

I am by no means actually bilingual. I studied Spanish in high school, and learned a fair bit from my Chilean mother growing up, but could never really have a conversation. We frequently traveled to Chile, as well as a few other Latin American countries where I would have the chance to practice the basics. I’ve forgotten a lot of it now, but still know enough words to travel, order food, and tell parents that their kids talk too much and don’t do homework (that last part comes from 7 years of teaching in Los Angeles and is not remotely useful while traveling).

Comparing menus is a great way to learn the "important" words in a new country

Comparing menus is a great way to learn the “important” words in a new country

But a funny thing happened when I went to China at 22. Out popped Spanish! It was the first time I visited a country where people were not speaking English or Spanish to me. Immersed in sounds I didn’t recognize, my brain flipped to the only non-English words it knew, Spanish words. There’s a chance someone in China is going to know enough English to communicate with me. But the odds that they speak Spanish better than English are probably similar to my odds of getting Ebola on this trip.

It happened again years later in Thailand with my husband, and has been happening for most of the past 3 months now. Every time my brain hears non-English, it instantly and uselessly (in Asia) flips into Spanish. I’ve caught myself saying “si” instead of “yes” in Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Italy and Morocco. Thankfully Maldivians all speak English so there was at least one country where I didn’t sound like a fool because of my language choice.


Croquettes, salads, montaditos (little sandwiches), chicken with fries, salmon tartare, oxtail stew, and one of the best slices of cake I’ve ever eaten

And then we got to Spain. And what a wonderful thing it was. Out came my poor, broken Spanish and people understood. Not only did they understand, but they complimented my Spanish!! They weren’t complementing it because it was that good, but rather because I clearly don’t speak it as a first language and was at least making an effort. I was receiving compliments along with food and wine that I actually wanted, rather than random things I had pointed at. It was a beautiful thing!

One odd part though was the fact that I could barely understand anything the Spaniards were saying. Anyone who learns Spanish from Latin Americans knows that Spain Spanish can sound like a completely different language. Not only are they talking a mile a minute and everyone sort of sounds like they have lisp, but they have different words for all the good things!

zumo = jugo = juice
copa = vino = wine
caña = cerveza = beer
*the last two actually refer to the quantity you’re ordering, but it’s what you say when eating out

Despite my difficulty in understanding the spoken language in Spain, it was still wonderful to communicate relatively effectively in a foreign language. Five days was not nearly enough tapas (appetizers) and siestas (naps) for me! So I’ll just have to return to this beautiful country when I have a little more time and money to enjoy it. In the meantime, I’m about to find out what the Portuguese think of my broken Spanish, which is undoubtedly what will be coming out of my mouth!



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