My Bilingual Doubletalk In Mexico

by Kevin Burton

   My career as an English as a Second Language teacher came to an abrupt early end one night under the streetlights outside a small taco shop in Puebla.

   To tell you how and why that happened, I first turn to BBC writer Nicole Chang, who recently wrote about what speaking multiple languages can do to your brain.

   Speaking a second or third language has obvious advantages, but sometimes the words, grammar and even accents can get mixed up.

   “I’m standing in line at my local bakery in Paris, apologizing to an incredibly confused shopkeeper. He’s just asked how many pastries I would like, and completely inadvertently, I responded in Mandarin instead of French,” Chang recalls. “I’m equally baffled.”

   “I’m a dominant English speaker, and haven’t used Mandarin properly in years. And yet, here in this most Parisian of settings, it somehow decided to reassert itself.”

   “Multilinguals commonly juggle the languages they know with ease. But sometimes, accidental slip-ups can occur. And the science behind why this happens is revealing surprising insights into how our brains work,” Chang wrote.

   “It turns out that when a multilingual person wants to speak, the languages they know can be active at the same time, even if only one gets used. These languages can interfere with each other, for example intruding into speech just when you don’t expect them. And interference can manifest itself not just in vocabulary slip-ups, but even on the level of grammar or accent,” Chang wrote.

   First of all, calling me bilingual is a stretch. There isn’t enough Spanish in my brain to interrupt the English too much.

   But one night after I visited my favorite taco stand, I walked back toward where I was staying, thinking to myself, “this was a day very hard.”

   I was thinking, not speaking, because I was by myself.  But my thoughts showed up with English words, but Spanish sentence structure. 

   Alarm bells went off.

   It was my real life’s goal to become a fulltime newspaper reporter.  My appearance in Mexico and eventual job as an ESL teacher was the result of a tantrum after not breaking into news right away because I’m legally blind and can’t drive a car. 

   This wasn’t a screaming tantrum, but I call it that because it was much closer to that, than a rational decision.

   So here I am on a dimly-lit Mexican street, with a fistful of taquitos, speaking gibberish English to myself.

   “Gees, if I’m ever going to be a journalist, I better get back up to the States before I forget how to Speak English,” was my next thought. 

   Doing my kind of journalism (bulldog rather than lapdog) in Mexico would have meant a short lifespan for me.

   So I said my adioses, packed mis coass and came back to the US. 

   See how that Spanish can sneak in?

   Now I was in no real danger of forgetting English. Really it was the dream in my gut that made me get on that plane.

  But now thanks to Chang’s article I see there was at least a little something going on there.

   “From research we know that as a bilingual or multilingual, whenever you’re speaking, both languages or all the languages that you know are activated,” says Mathieu Declerck, a senior research fellow at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels. “For example, when you want to say ‘dog’ as a French-English bilingual, not just ‘dog’ is activated, but also its translation equivalent, so ‘chien’ is also activated.”

   “As such, the speaker needs to have some sort of language control process. If you think about it, the ability of bilingual and multilingual speakers to separate the languages they have learned is remarkable,” Chang wrote.

   “How they do this is commonly explained through the concept of inhibition – a suppression of the non-relevant languages. When a bilingual volunteer is asked to name a color shown on a screen in one language and then the next color in their other language, it is possible to measure spikes in electrical activity in parts of the brain that deal with language and attentional awareness.”

   Speaking of electrical activity, there was this time during my only trip to Taiwan (for beep baseball), when I tried to talk to a very attractive Taiwanese woman.

   “Do you speak English,” I asked hopefully.

   She smiled slightly but said nothing.


  Shakes her head.


   More head shaking.  Not sure what I would have done had she picked up on the Portuguese. I could have told her how happy I was to meet her over and over again. That’s about it.

   Resigned, I switched my mind back over to English and to beep baseball.

   Anyway, that’s all the time we have today for languages and what they do to your brain.  Adios amigos!

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1 Comment

  1. 🙂 Interesting. I can’t say I’ve ever actually answered in another language, but I often find myself counting in a language other than English. I also sometimes think the words of another language, though I don’t know enough of any other to be fluent. I do sometimes ponder the sentence structure of other languages and consider that it shines light on the things that people say who do not know English very well.

    Tracy Duffy



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