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The Pros and Cons of Being Bilingual

Updated on June 12, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Being Bilingual

The pros and cons of being bilingual are well documented. In this post, I hope to bring to light some lesser-known pros and cons of being bilingual instead of the usual cognitive development, increased wages, and other commonly discussed benefits. I will talk about my personal experiences as a bilingual, and how being bilingual has affected me both positively and negatively in various social and professional ways.

What Are The Pros?

Some of the pros of being bilingual have a lot of value, and some don’t have a lot of actual value but are nice perks when looking at regular life as a whole.

One of the pros is that you can have a very effective and descriptive secret code. Instead of having to use secret head signals, hand signals, or code words for things like “let’s get out of here” if you’re at a party or “how much money should we give this person for their birthday” you can just outright say it, as long as nobody else speaks the language.

With my wife’s parents we can speak English, with mine we can speak Spanish, and neither one understands the other. It’s great and very useful. The same goes for grocery stores, Wal-Mart, or any other public place. To be able to speak a minority language, especially here in the rural Midwest, is a very helpful and practical thing for regular, everyday logistics.

Another of the pros and being bilingual is that it’s interesting. My wife will use words I’ve never heard before and I get to piece them together, figure out what she’s saying (or just ask) and then add it to my learning regimen and keep going. It’s rewarding to advance in something, and it’s like a constant puzzle or game that you can get better and better at.

It’s refreshing to do our yearly or biannual trip to Mexico and understand more, feel more comfortable, and be understood better each time. It’s quite a great feeling. Learning another language has a lot of personal satisfaction involved in it.

Someone who is bilingual from birth may not feel quite the same way, but some of this would still apply. Whether it’s bonding with other people who speak the minority language or making new friends they otherwise wouldn’t have, there is something about language that draws people together.

This article is called the pros and cons of being bilingual, so I will now focus on some of the cons of being bilingual that I notice in my everyday life.

The first con of being bilingual is that it is a workout for your brain. While this has been well-documented as a benefit for your brain, it is still exhausting. I liken it to mental fatigue from a high stress job, or physical fatigue from a highly physical job. Sure, it’s great to be able to work outside all day in a physical job. It keeps you healthy and in shape. However, at the end of the day, you’re still tired! The same goes for the bilingual lifestyle; at least for us later-in-life bilinguals. It’s not as easy to speak my L2, and it does require a bit more brain juice. While it’s less and less as your skills increase in the language and it becomes more automatic, I think it will always exist to a certain degree. I don’t really notice it anymore, but I’m guessing it’s a combination of more automation in my speaking (as opposed to hard thinking) and my concentration ability having increased.

Another of the cons of being bilingual is miscommunication. My wife and I have great communication. We are both fairly communicative people. We spend a lot of time conversing. Sometimes, things get complicated. It’s easier to get lost in a story, for example, in a second language. While it’s rare, it can be quite frustrating at times. I get lost in stories in English all the time, but at least I can recover fairly quickly because I have a lot more experience to draw on. In Spanish, sometimes I just have to interrupt and ask questions to get back on track. It’s not as easy to recover if I get distracted or am just tired and unwilling to do the work to listen.

So what does it all mean?

The pros and cons of being bilingual are many… with the pros and benefits of being bilingual outweighing the cons in my opinion. However, there are definitely some cons. Instead of real “cons of being bilingual” I would say they are more slightly negative side effects of the lifestyle of continual language learning.

Again, to me, it’s like likening language learning to physical exercise. It isn’t really a negative aspect of exercise that you get tired – it’s just part of the game. It’s necessary to strengthen your muscles. Sure it would be great if you didn’t even get tired, but then it probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Being bilingual is essentially constant language learning. The point of knowing everything is never reached, in any language, so one must always study and learn to advance their language skills; regardless of their current abilities. This point holds true even in a person’s native language.

I’ve listed a few of the pros and cons of being bilingual but certainly have not created an exhaustive list. Being bilingual is more complicated than a few pros and cons, and cannot be entirely described in a simple post. I have done my best to enlighten some who may not know as much about bilingualism to some of the not-so-commonly-spoken-about aspects of the bilingual lifestyle.

Want a comprehensive list of the benefits of being bilingual? <-- click here!

Jeffrey Nelson via LivingBilingual


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      DB 3 years ago

      My wife grew up bilingual, and I only English. Her mother is free to say things to my wife about me all the time that are hurtful, without my knowledge. I hardly think this is a pro. My wife is hurt, and doesn't say anything to her ailing mother but takes it. Then tells me about it and how I need to do this or do that in my M.I.L.s presence.

      My son (who also understands only English) had a great idea. It required that my wife would say a code word to me, should her mother talk bad about me in front of me, and I was to ask what mother was saying. So far I haven't heard the code word, and we are sour again as a result after another incident over breakfast.

      I need a Dear Abby Column to be writing this to find out what I ought to do.