Photo: José Goulão

Learning a foreign language as an adult is undeniably more challenging than growing up bilingual. Since we’re no longer human sponges, the task requires loads of patience and dedication. I failed on my first attempt, and have steered clear of obscure Baltic languages ever since. But my second and third attempts, in Spanish and Italian, were considerably more successful.

Whether you’re just starting out or are an advanced speaker, if any of these signs apply to you, you’re making it as a true bilingual:

1. You think and dream in the target language.

You talk to yourself, only now you do it in a foreign language. And the mundane, nonstop, everyday brain chatter is actually beneficial for your bilingual skills. Through this process you’re constantly discovering which words are lacking from your vocabulary, and can look them up immediately. The language has transcended your waking life and infiltrated your dreams.

One time in Italy (okay, twice), I was caught riding the metro without a ticket and received a hefty fine. In that moment, not even my new-found vocabulary could save me. But in my dream that night, I triumphed, talking myself out of that ticket like the locals did. Thinking and dreaming in a foreign language is a great beginning to your linguistic journey.

2. You can be witty and understand jokes.

Since being funny is a skill in and of itself, major props if you manage this in a foreign language. Extra points if you can integrate double entendres, cultural references, and regional accents into your humor.

Even though I was less “refined” than my CEO Mexican friend, I’d jokingly call him naco (uncultured, lower-class) in my best fresa (preppy, yuppie) voice. He would die of laughter every time, mainly because I was a foreigner using his cultural references.

3. You prefer the foreign language.

Certain expressions are just better in foreign languages. This preference could also be emotionally driven — meaning your mother tongue inherently lacks the passion merited in certain situations (e.g., pillow talk and road rage).

For me, a fierce vaffanculo! always got my Italian ex to shut up faster than my traditional ‘FU.’ Besides passion, becoming a language traitor is sometimes worth it for reasons of efficiency. If there’s one thing I know about the Georgian language, it’s that the expression for “the day after tomorrow” is better than the English version. It’s so concise: Zeg. Yep, that’s it. Just one word. Just one syllable. Just zeg.

4. You acquire the accompanying gestures.

Your flailing gestures began as a crutch to compensate for lack of bilingual prowess. But now their purpose is to embellish your already proficient verbal skills, or replace them all together. These non-verbal language skills are a bonus for all of your hard work.

During my first weeks in the Dominican Republic, I was convinced that half the population was plagued by a nervous twitch. And strangely enough, it always triggered when I asked somebody a question. Finally, after careful observation of a third-party conversation, I discovered that a rapid-fire twitch of the nose is a non-verbal way to ask the question, “What?” Next thing I knew, I was doing some twitching myself.

5. You speak a foreign language without premeditation.

…but must meditate deeply to remember your own. Some words you’ve forgotten completely, or have doubts about their existence. On the upside, via your language immersion, you’ve acquired an entire foreign noise vocabulary. It’s not like the sounds “ouch,” “umm,” and “uh-huh” are coded into our DNA. And now you’ve got the foreign equivalents down to perfección.

I prepared my family a pasta dinner upon returning home from Italy. When the pasta was perfectly al dente, I stumbled around my mom’s kitchen in search of that thing you dump the pasta and water into. You know, the drainpasta. To my detriment (and the pasta’s), that was all I could articulate to her. And in the spelling arena I’m embarrassed to say I’m still fucked to this day. I rely on Merriam-Webster for basic suffix verification: Is it -cion, -tion, or -sion? So much confu-sion!

6. You speak your native language within a foreign language framework.

“How could I literally get worse at my own language?” It’s embarrassing enough to catch yourself plugging English words into Spanish grammar structures, and damning your mistakes to hell in Italian. At some point you might feel like you don’t speak any language proficiently.

For me, foreign idioms translated poorly into English sometimes caused confusion on phone calls back home to my parents. They were more perplexed than pleased when I told them I was learning “a sack of Italian.” Then there was the time when my idiomatically jumbled brain misrepresented me as an arrogant exchange student about to return home. Before catching the plane from Mexico back to the US, I asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind gathering “the whole world” to greet me at the airport. They said they could only bring the family.

7. You speak your native language with an accent.

Beware — this could be the point of no return. You’re officially an unidentifiable bilingual and may want to consider a career as an international spy. Though I never arrived, I congratulate you if you made it.

View 14 comments