Worlds of late bilingualism

by Hanan Omar A Ben Nafa

Living in two languages is an art form, often times a highly skilled balancing act and one with personal and social consequences.[1] Those of us who are bilingual work harder and this cognitive, emotional and social labour is too often overlooked and undervalued. For example, we tend to be especially linguistically sensitive. We develop awareness of when to ‘code-switch’: to move back and forth between two languages (e.g. when around fellow bilinguals speaking the same language pair) and when to avoid it (e.g. when monolinguals of either language are around). Can you imagine how difficult it is to confine oneself to a single language? The mental effort it takes to ignore all the relevant words that are being activated in the other language? This can feel worse if the words or phrases activated are more contextually relevant and might as well be used in the current context.

With all the current studies that have explored the cognitive abilities of bilingual people, there is a strong tendency to consider bilingualism in general an advantage and so we should be proud of possessing this ability and feel lucky to be able to speak two languages. This advantage is usually interpreted as a cognitive and social flexibility ‑ being able to enjoy the freedom to interact with a large number of people in their first language (L1); an opportunity that many monolingual people miss out on.

As a late bilingual (you can find out more about my linguistic background here), everyday communication and getting my ideas across isn’t really what concerns me. If you were born in a country where one of your two languages is officially spoken, and born to immigrant parents who spoke to you in their mother tongue, you’re more likely to be an early bilingual with a somewhat good command of both languages. However, if you acquired your second language (L2) later in life or after what is commonly called the Critical Period, – the period where our brain plasticity, believed to be mainly responsible for acquiring language(s), starts to become reduced between the age of 5 and puberty; thus slowing language acquisition – then you’re a late bilingual. That said, it is argued that no bilingual can be called a ‘balanced bilingual’ because one of the two languages spoken can at least be more dominant or used often in a specific domain (home, school, peer interactions, etc.) (Nortier, 2008). Still, what puts the first group in a slightly more advantageous position is being exposed to two languages growing up and being able to consider either to be their mother tongue. Because late bilinguals have learnt one of the languages later in life, we may not achieve full or even native-like command in it. This doesn’t mean that all late bilinguals feel the same way, but it is often the case for those whose L1 isn’t as powerful or dominant in today’s world as English. It’s not always the case that early bilinguals continue being proficient in both languages. It is perhaps more common in English speaking countries that bilinguals who were brought up bilinguals would lose their L1/heritage language by the time they’re adults and end up being English monolinguals. This is usually due to stigma around speakers/students who speak English as an additional/second language, a factor that drives many parents to use only English with their children. I know a colleague who always believed that sticking to English and not using his heritage language at all as a teenager helped him adjust linguistically and culturally to life in England. Because of the powerful status of English today, some people feel compelled to either learn another language or to maintain their heritage language.

As a late bilingual, I’m very aware of the daily struggles I go through, never feeling integral when speaking either language. This feeling is made worse due to the diglossic nature of the Arabic language (the existence of both varieties: high and low, which are used in completely different contexts). This feeling has nothing to do with my command of English (I got a high score in my IELTS_ International English language test system_ exam after only 4 months in the UK). While some late bilinguals may consider having a smooth conversation with ‘natives’ problematic or effortful, I don’t. What I do find problematic and what most ‘native’ speakers aren’t aware of is the social and emotional impact of being a late bilingual. Luckily, this has been explored by bloggers such as Europelanguagecafe and Depentor, who capture bilinguals’ frustration with the ‘mental block’ they often experience that make many of us wonder if bilingualism is a blessing or a curse. It’s worth mentioning that this deep feeling of frustration and feeling self-conscious is not as common among older late bilinguals, particularly those who arrived at the host country later in life; at a time perhaps when a sense of their own identity is more established.

Linguistically, the two groups of bilinguals are different, a late bilingual doesn’t usually sound as ‘native’ as an early bilingual speaker does. A late bilingual will probably never sound quite like a ‘native’, and for this particular reason, their experiences are more complex, socially and psychologically. It is this complexity that interests me and what I think should be addressed in future research. There seems to be little awareness of the vulnerability and higher level of cognitive tasks bilinguals experience while speaking with monolinguals. As a speaker of a minority language in England, I always feel that if I’m to be taken seriously, I need to make sure I speak perfect English. I am always self-conscious when speaking English. Obviously context and relationships of power are important. A bilingual (English) friend of mine who works in Dubai told me that some Arabic speakers in one meeting were apologetic for using Arabic and not English, which is her preferred language.


It is true that while a late bilingual can usually communicate smoothly with monolinguals of either language, they can’t always quite manage to work at the finer level monolinguals are capable of. This could be because monolinguals have only one linguistic system at their disposal and could focus on it more and are likely to be able to use it in a far more sophisticated manner than late bilinguals can. Growing up in a country and speaking its official language is likely to help a speaker become more familiar with their society’s ideology and cultural references. When monolinguals realise that you speak their language fluently, they can start treating you as one of them linguistically (even if they can tell you aren’t, they still sometimes choose to ignore it). This can be both a linguistic imperialism and an individual burden because we have to try very hard to meet our interlocutors’ expectations.

Although bilinguals have rich daily experiences, this doesn’t take away from the difficulties and challenges. Functionally, many bilinguals, and even late ones, don’t seem to have a problem with getting by in everyday life but those who are very self-aware of their status as late bilinguals can be insecure about linguistic performance. Unsurprisingly, this can have adverse effects on one’s self-esteem and sense of self, along with cognitive/mental stress, and the feeling that you’re never good enough. I can’t even remember how many times I have wanted to say something but have held back because of not being able to express it well or quickly enough. For example, I can communicate very well with my other ‘native’ English speaking PhD students in the office, but I feel that I will never be able to fully understand them if, for example, they start speaking about TV shows from their childhood. I can’t really understand their jokes and pass a sarcastic comment or say something funny because you need to be confident enough in a language to be able to do this successfully, otherwise you’re running the risk of making a grammatical mistake, mispronouncing a word or even saying it in the wrong tone, which would effectively ruin the joke! I also constantly find myself in need of the opinion of an English ‘native’ speaker on how a draft sounds to them and whether or not a specific sentence sounds natural enough as I obviously don’t have the same innate ability to rely completely on myself and detect subtle/structural mistakes that ‘just don’t seem quite right’.

Another aspect that isn’t known about bilinguals in general is that being bilingual doesn’t mean we use one language as an identical substitute for the other. There is a difference, however, between translating the idea and expressing it in both languages as the latter usually entails a connotative meaning difference. When speaking with other bilinguals, especially friends, we code-switch mostly for one reason, that is to express certain ideas that can be better put in L1 and not L2, or vice versa. We rarely code-switch accidently, it’s often quite a deliberate act. Because we aren’t only concerned about the literal or the referential meaning of a particular phrase, we seek the language that can help us express the right ‘stance’ or ‘position’ we would like to convey. The freedom I experience when speaking with Arabic-English bilinguals contrasts with how irritated I find myself in situations when I know I need to confine myself to one language, even when chatting to my Arabic-speaking parents about how my day at university was or how my research is going.

Grosjean (2012) coins the notion of ‘Complementary Distribution’ to refer to this idea that bilinguals usually use both languages in a complementary manner due to the different environments in which they were first acquired. Therefore, each language choice is triggered by different situations or contexts and conveys different communicative functions. Interestingly, bilinguals mainly switch languages because they constantly need to adapt their linguistic resources to the situation they find themselves in and to the different statuses and linguistic abilities of their interlocutors. Although this is true for all groups of bilinguals, I think it’s particularly true for late bilinguals. Due to the context (home, school, etc.) they acquired both languages in, early bilinguals are more likely to have less topics that they can only talk about in a single language than late bilingual do. For example, I’m better at telling you about my childhood memories in Arabic than in English because I could only speak Arabic when I was a child. However, it’s easier for me to use English to talk about something I’ve encountered or learnt about in England, such as talking about my area of study or explaining to someone how they can set up a direct debit account.

I don’t think I will ever reach a stage where I will feel completely at ease with speaking to or interacting with monolinguals of either language. However, deep down I know I’m lucky because I can speak to both groups in the language they prefer even if that means I need to compromise and make more effort to accommodate them. Next time you talk to a bilingual person whose English is relatively fluent, think about the incredible layers beneath and around the most simple of exchanges, where points of connection come with hidden pleasures and costs. In today’s diverse societies, we encounter these individuals almost every day, but perhaps never take the time to acknowledge or even think about the challenging journey they are going through.

[1] I found this picture on one of the slides used by Professor Judith F. Kroll in a presentation she gave (2013), so I would like to acknowledge that!

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Hanan Omar A Ben Nafa is a 2nd year, PhD student in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Hanan has been in the UK since 2009 when she moved to pursue her studies. Hanan is working in the areas of Bilingualism, Applied Linguistics and Language Variation & Identity. The title of her PhD project is: ‘Code-Switching & social identity construction among Arabic-English bilinguals’. Alongside academia, she is interested in starting a part-time career in translation and interpreting. Passionate about languages and (bilinguals’) everyday language use. Find her on Twitter @HananBenNafa

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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20 thoughts on “Living in two languages

  1. Very impressive, you’re a trilingual then 🙂 I love learning languges too, but maybe it’s better to slow down a bit and master the ones you like the best, especially that you’re speaking many Eastern languages which are usually quite challenging.

    Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed my article.


  2. This really hits the nail on the head. I mean, the anxiety and other things. I know I can speak Spanish, and even though I’m more comfortable speaking it now, I still get self conscious about it. Which sometimes seems ridiculous because I’m good enough that people will probably understand what I mean even if I don’t say it perfectly. It kind of sucks …


    1. Hey.. I guess you’re English-Spanish bilingual? I love Spanish but I know very little!
      Yes, it’s that feeling about not being at ease with it.. I think this feeling never goes but you should be proud, not many people can master a second language.

      I’m glad you could identify with my piece, it’s such a relief to know that we’re all in the same boat, isn’t it? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nice, I’m also bilingual. Now I’m scared my kids aren’t going to be because I’m automatically speaking one language with them even though I speak two with others in the house. I think I’m sub consciously afraid to confuse them. However, the problem is they are not able to communicate with our older family members properly because most of them don’t speak English as fluently. I need to start because there’s always benefit in learning more than one language early. You have encouraged me to work on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mahvish. Yes, by all means. Most recent studies say that bilingual children can take longer in acquiring both languages, which is seemingly a disadvantage, but it is actually not! They take longer than monolinguals but that will all pay off as they get older. It’s quite natural for them to be confused because of too much input, but they will eventually cope 🙂 I think speaking two languages will make them both linguistically and socially capable and charming 😉

      There are some guides on the web for bilingual parenting, good luck 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. This whole experience is scary and exciting at the same time because my kids are actually going to be multilingual. I’m hoping I’m able to give them the tools to achieve that properly. I have been exploring a lot of differently tools online and buying books/apps. Lets hope I don’t overdo all that as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Do you also have a mental “competition” between words?

    For instance, “die Glühbirne” is an absolutely adorable way to describe a lighbulb, (+ 1 German).

    In conversation, I wind up using the word I like better without really thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I do experience that, but it’s more with phrases. So, for example, if I somebody speaks to me about political affairs in the Arabic world, I’ll have many words/phrases activated in Arabic rather than English because I like watching news in Arabic more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for an interesting & insightful article. I remember reading Eva Hoffman’s autobiography, lost in translation, which in a roundabout and somewhat self-regarding way deals with similar questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, and it’s a pleasure to be sharing my thoughts with you 🙂
      *I think you still have the chance to be one 😉


  6. This is so true! As a Hindi/Urdu and English speaker, I have trouble sticking to just one language and I used to think I was the only one who had this issue.

    I learned how to read and write Arabic around the age of 3 but I still have issues speaking it, I learned Kannada at the age of 9 and speak a VERY broken version of it. I am currently learning how to speak Spanish and German and oh dear… don’t even get me started with the pronunciations and grammar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very impressive, you’re a trilingual then:) I love learning languges too, but maybe it’s better to slow down a bit and master the ones you like the best, especially that you’re speaking many Eastern languages which are usually quite challenging.

      Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed my article.

      Liked by 1 person

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