• Ron Snell

7 Reasons to NOT Become Bilingual

Don Macho--One of our favorite people.

Lots of people want to learn Spanish when they come to Costa Rica. I’ve written articles about why it’s the best idea ever and I even teach Spanish classes. But like everything else, there are downsides, those pesky things we don’t like to talk about. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s the “other” perspective.

1. It’s more time consuming. If you only speak English, when you’re here you can quickly grunt, point, grunt louder and slower, and pretty much get beer, bread and avocados. If you actually speak the language, you exchange pleasant greetings, kiss and hug, chat about the weather and each other’s families, laugh at each other’s jokes, discuss surf and garden conditions, share your plans for the day, become friends, and on, and on, and on. A monolingual can get in, buy hir groceries, and get out in a few minutes. For a bilingual, not so much.

2. Sometimes people will think you’re being a smart ass because the exact word you need is in the other language. You’ll be chatting along in a most pleasant conversation and suddenly you’ll throw in that foreign word, or maybe you’ll stutter a bit and if you’re not careful you’ll say, “I’m trying to think of … you know… in Spanish it’s ‘chunche’.” And everyone will roll their eyes at each other, like you’re just sort of humble bragging and letting them all know that you’re fluent in more than one language. Nobody likes a smart ass, so expect to annoy your friends. But dang it, sometimes that Spanish word or phrase is perfect and there’s nothing quite like it in English.

3. The subtitles make you crazy. You’re watching this totally cool movie and all you can think about is the fact that the subtitles aren’t translated correctly! You want to scream, even during romantic comedies, “Why can’t these people get it right?!?!” The same thing happens on YouTube videos as well as Google translations of websites and Facebook posts. If you struggle with high blood pressure, you definitely don’t want to learn a second language and then watch movies with subtitles. And if you have a bilingual friend, don’t ever watch a subtitled movie with hir. Shhe’ll ruin it for you.

4. Related to #3, when you are watching a show or documentary set in another country and you can actually understand what the locals are saying, it’s hopelessly distracting or annoying or both. I once watched a ridiculous “docudrama” on the Discovery Channel where the actual conversations were so different from what was reported that I wrote a blog about it. The next thing I knew Survival International was calling me to find out more, and they made it into a big issue regarding integrity while interacting with other cultures. Their issue came out in several prominent newspapers, quoting me. I should have kept my mouth shut, or blog silent, but hey, if you’re bilingual sometimes you can’t help yourself. Tranquilo, Mahe.

5. It’s expensive. Gone are the days when you can buy books, music, newspapers and magazines just in English. Nope, now you have to have a whole bunch of stuff in Spanish because it’s fun to read how other people express themselves and some of that music is downright fun to listen to. I might add here that this adds to the annoyance because you’ll be totally engrossed in something you’re reading or listening to, and burst out laughing or singing at the top of your lungs, and then you can’t explain it to the people around you because humor and lyrics don’t translate all that well. So not only does it cost more money, it also costs you socially.

6. It’s confusing. Many of us, especially in North America, grow up and live out our lives with pretty well formed opinions about ourselves, our country, our faith and our favorite foods. Becoming bilingual makes a mess of that. Ask your friend in your favorite bar or church what shhe thinks about politics and religion, and you get a pretty predictable answer that confirms everything you already know. Ask a Tico on a bus what shhe thinks about politics and religion and all bets are off. You don’t know what you’re going to hear, and danged if sometimes shhe doesn’t sound pretty informed and thoughtful about it all while shhe is disagreeing with you. So now you have to think, and you have to do it in another language, and your confidence ebbs as you try to figure out how to defend your precious opinions in a language that conjugates every verb and thinks every noun has to be male or female. A congnitive linguist recently pointed out that we believe there is only one way to look at the world, and then we learn another language. Huh.

7. You’re a lot funnier, especially when you particularly don’t want to be. You’re the man who tells your friend that you’re pregnant instead of embarrassed because, what do you know, ‘embarazado’ doesn’t mean embarrassed. Or you walk into the grocery store and ask for a dozen Thursdays* instead of eggs, or you order a plate of sins cooked in garlic, or say your workers are married instead of tired. It’s hilarious stuff, the kind of thing that endears you if it doesn’t get you killed, and it happens over and over because one little letter, or one little conjugation, or one little false cognate turns out to make a big difference. If you’re monolingual, you get to laugh at everyone who struggles to speak your language. If you’re bilingual, everyone gets to laugh at you. Think about it before you get all dreamy about learning that other language.

There are, of course, more reasons to avoid a second language like the plague, but I’m pregnant to say that I’ve gotten married while writing this and I need to go fix some sins for supper. I always do that on Eggs night.

*pregnant = embarazada, embarrassed = avergonzado/a

Thursday = jueves, eggs = huevos

Sin = pecado, fish = pescado

Married = casado/a, tired = cansado/a

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