Life With a Bilingual Brain

Quite literally ever since I can remember, the English language and its composition has not been the only inner monologue playing in my brain; I was raised bilingual, meaning that I speak two languages, Ukrainian and English, fluently, and can comfortably switch back and forth between them without much difficulty. I have never known what it was like to not understand one or the other, and it was not until I entered kindergarten thatI truly grasped exactly what language was or that I was speaking two completely different ones. I knew that my mother spoke her way, and that Elmo sounded different, but it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t understand each other. Everything always made perfect sense to me, so I never felt alarmed by this or cared to ask much about it. In terms of, which did I understand first, and consider my “first language,” I usually just say English because I use it more often, and it happens to be my major; however, apparently as a two year old I decided to go the Slavic route. According to my dad, I was not the most talkative child until I uttered my first complete sentence. As we were walking out of Sears and into the parking lot, he nearly dropped me because I looked up and asked in perfectly grammatically correct Ukrainian, “Tato, where is our car?”

Hopefully not everyone has a story about their parents almost dropping them because they finally proved to the world that they a) were hitting milestones just fine and/or b) weren’t ignoring half of what was being said to them. But for those who do have a collection of wacky stories and memories regarding languages, here is a list of things people who grew up bilingual remember all too well:

Saturday school

Typical American children spend a grand total of twelve compulsory years of their lives wandering the halls of large, cinder block structures sprinkled with an array of metallic cabinets that need a very specific number setting in order to open up, unless jammed. This phenomena is usually simply called “school,” though a wide variety of colorful language can used to describe it. Sadly, these tend to exceed the limits of what is appropriate to publish on the interwebs. Now, imagine attending school not five days a week, but six. 10 out of 12 of my compulsory education years were spent doing homework in an Eastern European language every Friday night, feeling burnt out and eventually resolving to copy Wikipedia pages (bless their translate button). On better Fridays I was in bed before the clock struck midnight, so I could actually have a few hours of sleep before getting up early Saturday to sit through Ukrainian School, but usually I stumbled my way upstairs well after Cinderella had ditched the party, dazed and confused and wondering if I should crawl out the girls’ bathroom window tomorrow morning and lie to my mother. Angry Ukrainian adults put a whole new meaning to “dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow” (originally stated by Mushu, a Disney dragon character from Mulan), so ditching and coming back alive was difficult.  


Speaking half and half

Like Spanish speakers and Spanglish, Ukrainians love mixing English with their native tongue. So we refer to our family members as “Tato, Babcia, and Deedo” instead of “Dad, Grandpa, and Grandma,” and I’d ask my brother, “did we have domashnye zavdannya from heohrafiya” instead of “did we have homework from geography.”. Other random words, such as fruits and vegetables, are usually referred to in Ukrainian since mealtimes at home is when and where we speak it the most, so sometimes we forget how to say something in English and get frustrated in Jewel. I know “kabachke” are a type of squash, but which squash to be exact...that one?


The non translatable words

Nuff said.

Needing extra help sometimes

When I was in second grade, my teacher caught on that I was not pronouncing “th” correctly, so I had to take extra speech classes. The Ukrainian language does not ever make that sound, so the chances of me picking up my “th” at home were slim to none. Thankfully, I loved speech class immensely, and now I can pronounce my friend Matthew’s name effortlessly.

Knowing more Christmas carols than anyone else

One of my favorite things about being bilingual is being able to sing Carol of The Bells in Ukrainian - Shchedryk - and then telling my friends all about how they are completely different since Americans took the sheet music and rewrote the lyrics. The original Shchedryk is about a bird telling a family about their good fortune in the new year the night before Jordan - the Ukrainian holiday commemorating Christ’s baptism in the river of that same name - while the American English version is about church bells ringing on Christmas Day.

People who think they are bilingual because they took some basic foreign language class in high school and can maybe order food in said language


When you speak to your parents in said language and your friends are either intrigued or space out entirely

There’s two types of people in this world.

Wondering what it would be like to not speak another language