What it Feels Like to Become Bilingual

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Has this ever happened to you?

You’re walking around the airport, bag rolling behind you on the shining linoleum. There is a constant hum buzzing. It’s the sound of people chatting away, making small talk or simply trying to race to their next flight to some unknown part of the world. 

Exhausted and maybe a bit anxious you find your gate and finally sit down, only to have noisy kids beside you. But then something neat happens. They speak. And it’s not English. The foreign words fly out of their lips like bees to honey.

And your heart sinks. 

You have had a lifetime dream of learning a foreign tongue but you’re afraid will never be able to speak another language like those children do with ease. 

And you wonder … 

What does it really feel like to speak two languages? Click To Tweet

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I remember how that felt to see kids speaking the language I dreamed of learning. It was so easy for them yet seemed impossible for me. I thought I would ever be able to speak Ukrainian with my husband and his family. 

Yet, I consistently went to my Ukrainian language lessons shoving massive amounts of vocabulary into my brain. Living in Ukraine helped me learn the language but the combination of memorizing words and continually hearing words I didn’t understand left me feeling worn out and simply exhausted.


We lived with my sister-in-law and her family. She had a toddler at the time and it was neat to be able to look at his baby books and understand the counting or animals that were shown. The lessons were paying off.

And yet, I felt like the child. Not because of the books but because of the way I spoke the new words. My tongue could not wrap itself around the shch’s or rolled r’s. Plus, without the full ability to speak, I needed someone to be with me in public to translate. Childish. 


Then came the best part. There are moments when the words you learn pop up in conversations around you and eventually an entire sentence will have words you’ve learned. And you understand what the person speaking said. 

It feels like magic. 

Understanding those words strung together for the first time is like you just broke the spell on a hard to crack curse. You have finally gained some control.

At least, until the person continues speaking and you have no idea what they said. Again. 

Becoming bilingual feels like magic Click To Tweet


This stage lasted a while for me, in part due to living in a country where the younger generation is eager and excited to learn English and practice it any way they can. Like on me. 

So, during my four-year stay in Ukraine, I spent most of that time speaking English. Even teaching it at one point. I could understand the language well, but the words still stuck in my throat. 

Plus, people laughed when I tried speaking Ukrainian. There were not many foreigners in the city where I lived which meant I sounded funny. It made me more shy. 


It wasn’t until my husband and I moved back the United States that I lost my shy nature and finally started speaking Ukrainian fluently. I was no longer too shy to speak to my husband and I wanted to teach my little boy Ukrainian as well. No one knew if my grammar was correct or not, so I spoke until the words came out naturally. 

And it felt powerful.

I could speak the language. My husband and son could understand me and when my mother-in-law visited the United States, we had one on one conversations for the first time.

I had finally become bilingual. 

The next time I was in the airport with my husband and son to visit Ukraine, I understood the words rapidly flying out of the small children’s mouth at the gate. Amazing. I realized the seemingly impossible is possible. It simply comes with a lot of emotions. 

But don’t be afraid of the feelings that accompany the ride to becoming bilingual, the good and the bad. Hold on the magic, the shyness, childish feelings, exhaustion and then the power. Those emotions make life worth living and learning a language memorable. 

Just don’t live in this emotion: fear. 

Go ahead, learn for yourself with it feels like to become bilingual.

Jewel Elise Raising World Children - Where Cultures Meet ParentingJewel Eliese is a fiction writer, developmental editor, co-creator of the Medium publication Writer Mom and founder of writeawaymommy.com. Jewel runs on lukewarm coffee and baby kisses. She believes every mom can write well. Get the free checklist to find time to write with kids around here writeawaymommy.com/checklist/


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16 Replies to “What it Feels Like to Become Bilingual

  1. What interesting insight! I also wished I spoke another language growing up. I enrolled my son in Chinese school when he was a toddler hoping that he’d pick up another language, but he doesn’t really remember much. My nieces are fluent in Japanese and English and it’s such an advantage!

    1. That’s fantastic! You should take pride in the fact that you tried to have your child learn another language. I bet that helped in ways we’ll never know about. Like your nieces, my children are also bilingual. Glad it’s helping them!

  2. It’s hard to learn a language that’s not your own. It’s especially hard when you’re an adult. That’s why I found myself beaming with pride when you finally mastered it in the end. Great work, Jewel!

  3. Thank you for the lovely article, Jewel! I can recognize myself when I was learning French (my third language) 🙂

    I think becoming bilingual is more of an issue in the Americas where people more rarely get exposed to different languages – and hence, there is no “real need” to acquire a foreign language. Besides, you had to learn Cyrillic, which is an additional challenge.

    In Europe we start with foreign language classes from very early age, as we have such a great variety on such a small territory! And with English having established the strong position of an international language, it becomes even more challenging for an English native speaker to practise the language of the foreign country, as everyone is so eager to make things easier for the guests and speak in their language! Kris Loomis shares of her Spanish learning adventure in one of her books, addressing the very same issue 🙂

    Otherwise, every next language becomes easier to learn, as you already have a foundation to step on, and you make analogies – especially between the same language group!

    1. There is so much truth in your comment. Funny how American’s try to make it easier for the foreigners, maybe there’s always difficulties from learning a language in the actual country, And yes, a foundation, especially for young language learners is a great stepping stone. Thanks!

  4. This is such a neat storyline of the progression of learning a new language! I love hearing it from your perspective. I’m perpetually in the “shy” stage of Spanish. I know a lot but am always afraid I’m saying something wrong when I try to pull it out in conversation.

    1. Hello Emily,
      Don’t worry about being in the shy stage for a long time, it happens. I think I loved with my shyness for a couple years before I got past it. Even my son had a point of being shy before he finally spoke Ukrainian. Part of the difficulty is getting your tongue used to wrapping itself around the words. You’ll get there. Hey, you can always speak with someone who doesn’t understand, like a baby. Or dog. I may have done this at one point.

  5. Jewel,
    I agree with Frank, easy it is not (learning the next language—as an adult.)
    But, it is possible.
    I am so proud of you (and hubbie and son.) High-five, high-five, high-five!
    You gave yourself a grand gift.
    Especially for your child. Your eyes/world have widened.
    You have crossed through the wardrobe and stepped into the land of Narnia and beyond.
    Caroline DePalatis, I know, can attest to this.
    What’s next? Spanish?

  6. I can only imagine all of those things you felt! I am sure it feels like such an incredible accomplishment as you go though!

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