Writing a bilingual character is probably very difficult for someone who isn’t bilingual. So, here’s a quick post on a couple of things I do and experience as someone who is bilingual. 

For context my first language is English, but I’ve lived in Spain for over 15 years now and my partner who I live with only speaks Spanish, so I do speak more Spanish on the average day than English. 

1.-I forget words, all the time, in both languages. Sometimes my brain is only going to give me one version of that word and that may not be the language I’m aiming for. Depending on the word or circumstance though, I’ll often just throw it into the conversation and hope for the best. This works a lot because usually if my brain doesn’t supply the word, it’s actually because they’re very similar. Examples of words I may forget (supposedly/supuestamente, acusation/acusación, salary/salario…) a sentence I often say to my roommate is, “I don’t know the word in Spanish but I’m just a couple of letters or a syllable away.” 

2.-Expressions are my worst nightmare. Seriously, the amount of times I forget which expressions exist in which language and just say them anyway is concerning. In the best of cases, this ends up with people simply not understanding. But in the worst of cases, you get the fact that the Spanish expression for being put under anaesthetic is “le van a dormir” literally translates to “they’re putting him to sleep”, so when I told my mom my cat had a urinary infection had to stay at the vet because they were putting him to sleep… well, she interpreted something slightly different (for anybody who English isn’t their first language, being put to sleep is an expression that means to put down, like… medically induced death). 

3.-Despite the fact that I am bilingual enough to realice five episodes in I forgot to change my streaming to English, I can’t do two languages at the same time. By which I mean, if I have a show on in the background in English, I can still write, in English. But if I an hear the TV in Spanish, then I can only write in Spanish. I don’t know why this happens, but it does. Also if I’m witting in English and someone starts speaking to me in Spanish, I have to ask them to start over. 

4.-Translating. So, I’ve heard people complain about the whole “oh I struggle to switch sometimes” when referencing bilinguals in writing. But I genuinely experience something similar while translating, so I most often translate for my boyfriend when my family speaks to him in English, and then I translate what my boyfriend says in Spanish back to them. Yep, that’s how translating works, the problem is, if say my boyfriend knows how to say something in English, he then does that, and I’ll automatically translate what he said in English to Spanish for my English family. 

Hey, you give me one thing, I give you back the other. It’s not my job to pay attention to what goes in and out. 

5.-Sometimes cultural difference and language differences are blurry lines. For example, in English if someone were to offer me something, say a sandwich, and I didn’t want it, I’d say, “no thank you,” and when the same thing happens in Spanish I say, “no gracias.” However, most Spanish would just say “no”, and I have had people say to me, “you don’t say gracias when it’s a no, only when it’s a yes…” 

This is also is really weird because whenever I take my boyfriend out for dinner with my family and they offer him something he just replies no and it kind of sounds rude even though we all know it’s just the difference in culture. So, it’s a fun thing you can keep in mind when writing a character’s dialogue.