Thoughts From My Bilingual Brain

Ruxy Chitac reflects on the personal challenges she faced as a bilingual speaker living in the UK. She acknowledges both the benefits and the issues that arose with speaking another language daily, and how it affected her mental health.   

Moving to another country involves many changes in someone’s life. Whether it involves getting accustomed to new products in grocery stores or a different climate; language is probably the most dramatic difference in the life of a foreign person adapting to a new country.

As a matter of fact, I was in the lucky position of having studied English for a long time before moving to Scotland, so the vocabulary and grammar were ingrained in my brain by the age of 18. However, with this transition, I discovered that ‘knowing’ a language fluently and speaking it as a primary language are two very different scenarios.

My brain had to get used to constantly producing words and sentences in the right language at any point during the day. This was a huge change from those one-hour classes every day in Romania – when the teacher was asking us very specific questions like ‘Talk about a fond memory in your life.’ Because of this challenge, I found that learning to talk fluently like a native speaker is very much like creating a habit – training your brain to think and act in a completely new way.

Although, a couple of weeks of conscious effort to make associations in English (rather than Romanian), led to a success in terms of what my brain perceived as my ‘go-to language’.  This process was sped up further by constant exposure to situations that required me to think quickly and process information in English. At first, my brain struggled with worrying about the right tense of a verb or small errors accidentally slipping from my tongue. I was almost frozen by the thought that the other person in the conversation would judge me harshly for that. But as I came to learn later, they were all insecurities in my mind. People didn't usually notice any small ‘slip-up’s’ because they were all distracted by other issues in their own lives.

Even with all of this, the challenging part of switching primary languages is that I still have family and friends that expect me to communicate in Romanian. Sometimes this creates an amusing situation as I might type messages to my mum in English or I might start talking to my boyfriend in Romanian, if I recently talked to my parents on the phone. Other times, this creates an immense amount of stress for me as it is nerve-wracking to not be able to speak neither language perfectly. My sentence structure might be off, or I might just forget what to call certain household objects in Romanian, making everyone in my family frustrated – which is definitely not a pleasant feeling. It is also a matter of feeling like I am in between two worlds all the time as I speak these languages in very different contexts using very different styles too. This can create quite a lot of anxiety when you add this struggle to the usual daily stress.

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However, it is wonderful what a bilingual brain can do as well. Every day, I am very proud of the constant associations I make with both languages in my head. I try to read and write as much as I can in both languages to keep in touch with all aspects of these two unique ways I have to express myself. It is truly amazing what knowing two languages can offer you: such as the opportunity to connect with so many more people and form instant bonds with those who also went through the same challenges of making a new country their home. On top of this, my accent will always give away the fact that I ‘don’t sound like I am from the UK’ and that makes for an awesome conversation starter!

With all of this in mind, I would like to say that I have an immense respect for those who juggle two, three or more languages at a time. These are people you should get to know, because they definitely have wonderful minds! And for anyone who has doubts about immersing themselves into a new culture without knowing the language very well, I would say that the best way to learn is by speaking it in the most trivial contexts. This will develop your self-confidence and, no doubt this will also make you feel less isolated in a foreign country that might become your ‘home’ someday.