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Oye, Are You Really Bilingual?

Submitted by on April 3, 2012 – 1:00 am27 Comments
bilingual spanish sign

Bilingual Spanish Sign

¿Donde va el Acento?

So, listen.

I’ve got a new day job. I’m hanging at a Latino nonprofit in Nashville. Doing PR and communications. My new role calls on me to write in Spanish. For native Spanish-speakers.

Me he cagado once in a while over it. My Spanish writing is not as good as my English. I knew that, but now I really, really know it.

It has made me question the level of bilingual I am.

I wrote mucho about it over on my personal blog, Bilingual in the Boonies. Maybe the blog should be called Semi-Bilingual in the Boonies?

Anyway, un poco:

I can’t remember the accents and the words that flow so easily from me in English sputter out of my head in fits and stalls in Spanish. I worry my words are wrong, maybe they’re Miami cubanisms and not really terms native Spanish-speakers would use? I worry. Thank goodness for great editors and kind proof readers.

Oh, and I won’t even spend much time telling you how I forget words as I am speaking to native Spanish-speakers. Thank goodness for Spanglish, but there’s work to be done in that area for me, too.

How is your written Spanish?

I got some super cool comments on the essay and now I want to ask you, the Tiki Tiki.

Can you write as well in Spanish? If so, how and why? Were you educated in Spanish?

Can you speak, but not write in Spanish? If so, what the heck are you going to do about it, if anything? (I’m reading Spanish literature and the local Spanish papers….I think it’s the key to improving.)

I want to improve my written Spanish. For marketability and for my brain and spirit.

Do you care about your level of being bilingual?


Share, por favor!


  • Jamie says:

    The fact that I was born into the language and I’ve watched Spanish tv since I was born has allowed me to speak the language properly. Can’t say the same for writing with proper accents and such. I have the Spanish language option turned on on the iPhone so when I’m typing an email in Spanish, I look like I know what I’m doing because it autocorrects and adds accents for you. :) Good for you for reading Spanish Lit! How’s that working out for you?

    Last year I did social media for a Spanish brand and it was brutal. I felt like I was not bilingual at all! The thing is the Spanish language is SO different from country to country, city to city, culture to culture , that everyone has their own version of it. Who knows what the “right” one is! Good luck!

    • Carrie says:

      Jamie, I have turned down some Spanish campaigns because I didn’t want to trip over myself. I hear you.

      At work, it is kind of funny figuring out which words/terms to use in official Spanish literature. Feedback from people from several Spanish-language countries, plus the American-born who learned Spanish properly, and Google Translate! LOL It is crazy.

      Good luck to you, too!

  • isaac says:

    Por supuesto que ser bilingüe te aumenta la oportunidad en todos los aspectos. Pero supongo que debe existir una tercera salida: yo fui educado en México, pero con educación bilingüe. Aprendí ciertas fiestas de los Estados Unidos. Y me doy cuenta que muchos hispanos en EU han perdido por completo la identidad, que en mucha parte, tiene que ver cómo nos expresamos en español.

    Saludos y felicidades por adentrarte en el tema.

  • Mary Lynn C says:

    I can read write and speak in both languages well, except for one tiny little thing – accents. I was born and educated in the USA, and even though my Cuban born parents stressed the importance of reading and writing and above all, speaking Spanish, accents just did not come into the picture. Back when I went to school (I am 60), I waa denied Spanish classes since I had a Hispanic surname. They felt Hispanics would have an unfair advantage. I was not able to take an advanced course either, back then.

    I have gotten by, but thank God for spell check on anything that is an official document. When I worked, my Spanish was limited to the spoken word.

  • Ruben says:


    This might come as a surprise to you (seeing as I was born, raised, and mostly educated in Colombia), but I think after 16 years in the US, my written English is superior to my written Spanish. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in Spanish and when I’m faced with writing in formal Spanish (the few officials dealings I still have with the Colombia government or letters to the teachers at my kids’ Spanish-speaking daycare) I constantly find mysel resorting to the diccionario to find the Spanish equivalent for terms that flow out of me naturally in English. It is a shame, but it is natural.

    There’s also the factor that each language has terms and expressions that don’t have a direct equivalent in the other language, so while my mind is in constant English mode because of work and because most of my friends are English-speaking, I find myself frustrated by the lack of certain terms and concepts in Spanish.

    So, not that you’re beating yourself up over it, but I hope you find some relief in knowing that even a native speaker (as native as they come, jet black hair and all) can forget his academic Spanish so easily. My hope is that as I teach my kids to read and write in Spanish, some of my atrophied abilities will come back (much like they did with the spoken Spanish).

    Animo amiga Cubana!


    • Carrie says:

      Ay, gracias, Ruben!

      I appreciate your feedback — shocking as it is! Your writing in English, on your blog, is beautiful and perfect and funny and smart and nuanced. I hope you write that well in Spanish!

      I will lessen my own personal frustration and just keep at it.

      Que mas remedio me queda?

  • I am Cuban, born and raised in Miami. My spoken spanish has always been good. I didn’t speak English until kindergarden. My written Spanish is so-so. It takes me forever to type up a sentence because I think in English and translate to Spanish. It doesn’t always work.

  • Spanish? Que eso? Actually I think we know more than we give ourselves credit for, we’re just super how do you say… acomplejadas.

    My Spanish flows when speaking with friends (ok, maybe it’s the Spanglish that’s flowing)but when I get into a more formal environment I sputter atrocidades. Think of a deer looking at headlights- only verbally.

    But you’re right, nothing like reading to bring us up to speed- and of course the calls back to our families (older generation) in Miami.

    I have faith in you- you’ll do fine.


  • Angela says:

    I started writing spanish with my grandmother who lived far away as soon as I was able to write at all. Thanks to our penpal letters from childhood my spanish writing is way more advanced than my brothers, not to mention the relationship that was nourished with my grandmother because of it. So gracias Abuelita!! That said, while my spoken spanish is fluent, my written spanish is more of an advanced intermediate level, that is because we live in the USA and we dont practice writing enough. I was coupled with a Spanish Diplomat for 4 years who said my spanish wasnt the “real” spanish and he helped greatly in my writing by teaching me the “RULES,” which for me were just impossible to memorize. For example, my sister in law (Gringa) writes better than me because she majored in Spanish in University and is herself a Spanish teacher. All that said, I have to study vocabulary about a subject in spanish before I write about to refresh my writing ability. When I am speaking spanish and I dont know what to say I just speak faster or smile a lot but that just can’t be done in writing. Thanks for sharing!

  • I am a native English speaker who started learning Spanish in kindergarten, when my family moved to Spain. My father was in the air force and the host country language was mandatory in our school. I remember writing a letter to Los Tres Reyes in Spanish!

    I took Spanish in high school and then took 12 hours of upper-level Spanish in college, so my written Spanish and my Spanish grammar are pretty good – better than some bilingual Spanish speakers I knew in Miami. I also worked in Chile for two years, in Spanish.

    I know enough Spanish to know, though, that I do not have native fluency. When I interviewed for a job involving Latin America, I said that I knew enough to know that when you do an ad campaign in Chile, you need a Chilean to vet the copy, not a Colombian and not an American.

    As in, I tried to warn them that “pico” in Chile was not the same thing as “pico” in Venezuela and Mexico and perhaps we should have Chile-specific marketing materials for this one product.

    My employer (I got the job), declined, even though in Chile, “pico” is slang for “penis.”

  • Susan says:

    I learned Spanish in high school, took a year in college, and then transferred to a college that didn’t offer it. When I stopped studying, I was at a level where I could read novels, write, and converse naturally. For the next 20 years, I used my Spanish to read restaurant menus, and it atrophied.

    I tried. . . I had jobs where we had Spanish speaking clients and employees, and when I tried speaking Spanish with them, they wanted to speak English only with me. Finally, a few years ago, I made some friends who would speak Spanish with me. And then it got all confusing. I had forgotten a lot of words and I could only reliably conjugate verbs in three tenses. On top of that, I had people from different countries speaking their own versions of Spanish, so I had to learn and remember different words to be spoken with different friends. I tried taking a college level Spanish class, but they told me I was too advanced and suggested I listen to CD’s to refresh my skills.

    Finally, I married a Guatemalan, which ended the primacy issue – Guatemalan Spanish reigns supreme in our house. He’s fluent in both English and Spanish, so we speak both. I ask him to correct my errors in Spanish and, like every other Spanish speaker I’ve asked to do this, he says I don’t make errors. I know I do. He feels comfortable watching Spanish tv that doesn’t have subtitles, without needing to explain to me, so I follow along and do my best. My family figured it out when they moved here, and they moved here before tv, radio, and ESL classes, so I’m working it, one day at a time, and feeling like I’m not getting there quickly enough.

  • gisela says:

    After almost a half century in this country ( I came when I was 22 years old) I still need a dictionary for both, english and spanish, the first one because even after so many years there are many words and phrases I don’t know and the second because in spite of being my native tong, like every thing in life , you forget what you don’t use often and neither of my jobs require any writing from my part. With emails, blocks and social networks people is now writing a little bit more and for those of us concern about the correct spelling it is necessary to use use a dictionary to learn or refresh our memory, no shame n that, the shame is to pretend we know it all and then make big mistakes or translations that will make readers very confused. There is never too late to learn something new and we never know every thing, no matter how much we think we do =©)

  • I am fully bilingual and bi-literate, I write well in both. How did I learn, well my parents are hispanic {mom is Cuban and dad is Mexican} when I was 6 years old we moved from Los Angeles area to Ensenada Baja Mexico. During the school year Monday-Friday we went to school and lived 100% in Ensenada, as soon as Friday came I knew mom would pick us up from school with suitcases packed and drive straight to L.A. to visit our family. During Summer vacation we would take Summer school in L.A. to keep up with our English. Spanish was spoken 100% at home too, but t.v. was always in English.

  • Sandra says:

    I don’t necessarily struggle with either unless I’m talking about a topic I’m not familiar with and it’s mostly because I speak English all the time, except with my daughter. I did complete my first six years of schooling in Mexico and have studied Spanish ever since. I am a translator with an MA in the field so I have no excuses, right? :) I should feel pretty confident but once in a while I get so mad at myself or over analyze the things I say or write. I think it’s pretty normal to feel this way, though.

  • Mari N says:

    Carrie, I can read write and speak in both languages well, except for one tiny little thing – accents.. My parents and I migrated from Cuba when i was 6 years old… Spanish was always the language spoken at home and my parents always had me write to my paternal grandfather in Spanish in the early years until his passing… However through the years I stopped writing…there went the accents; but with dictionaries and spell check…it wasn’t too bad. However, when we moved to Miami [i was raised in CA] I had a rude awakening my Spanish at home, the conversational Spanish even that with customers say at a bank was no match for writing business letters to the Business Spanish speaking world….

    I landed in a Cuban owned and grown company and there i realized that my Spanish lacked.. yes there was plenty of Spanglish around the office, but here Spanish was the main language of the office and I started noticing terms and expressions that as in English did not translate well and were either “cubanism” or Spanish expressions, etc. and so I began paying attention…but It was my Cuban Boss who was now more American than George Washington who fully immersed me into looking/studying/breathing business Spanish correctly … At the beginning every letter he wrote [a literal translations]- he sent to his boss for review and it came back marked up … not only does it not translate well – he was not including the personal salutations – which its absence would be considered an insult…in a proper letter. Needless to say being fully bilingual is not easy… and much to my dismay in subsequent jobs/interviews in Miami part of the requirement believe it or not is to be fully Bilingual, being able to write and articulate proper business letters and speak in business terms…in Spanish!

    The road is not easy and more and more Bilingual business in Miami are asking for proper business Spanish so being fully bilingual is not just conversational at home Spanish anymore… I share this with my 20 something daughter who finds it crazy that I correct her when she says I’m going the librería with Ava [my precious granddaughter] …you are going to the biblioteca – the librería is Borders or Barnes & NobeI… lol .. And yes when my granddaughter is around I only speak Spanish to her and I play the Spanish stations with Salsa, etc..…. I love your tiki tiki blog and especially all the different sayings… some of which I had forgotten about… so I say them more often in hopes that my daughter and granddaughter will think they are funny or “weird” and will store these away somewhere in their memories …perhaps we won’t totally lose our culture in this great big melting pot. Bilingual is definitely the way to go!

  • Maria (from Miami) Rodriguez says:

    It’s funny but when I was living in Seattle, WA I was anxious that I would forget how to speak Spanish. Now, living in Miami, I worry that I will forget how to speak English!!! Caramba! I can write Spanish better (quicker) than I can read it. I get stuck here and there when I’m reading it. Now, in order to write it, wait for it…I have to speak it out loud and enunciate the words in order to spell them as correctly as I can. Gracias Papa Dios for Google Translate!!!

  • Lisel says:


    Gracias a Papi[my grandfather] ( as you can see the acento is missing here— but it’s because the spell checker is not working on this thing! :-) )- we were subjected (we thought at the time) to work with him to read, write and speak in Spanish during the summers before we were allowed to run like locos through the neighborhood.

    All these many years later- I really appreciate those classes as well as his gifts of El Pequeno Larousse http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/el-pequeno-larousse…/1104754520 and Conoce Usted Su Idioma http://www.amazon.com/Conoce-Usted-Idioma-Tercera…/B000TBSDUE- which have been helpful through the years – they have served me well. I can speak, read and write properly in 2 languages! I have translated many signs and patient care forms for a hospital where I worked for 15+ years, and I even did a little translating for a state agency back in the 90′s. Sometimes, I am writing in Spanish and thinking in English and vice versa. I guess that you could say its pretty darn cool!

    The hard part is trying to teach the kids- wish Papi was still around!!

  • Lisel says:

    Oh and I forgot to metion- props to a very used and thumbed through English/Spanish dictionary (old school!)……

    remember- you had to take English courses to learn some things- and if you did not get the same in Spanish- then it can be challenging! :-)

  • ¡Qué difícil!, ¿no?

    What a great post and discussion… You know my deal, but for those that don’t, like some people here, I’m also fully bilingual and biliterate. As a journalist, I’ve spent the better part of my life writing in both languages, so I don’t really have any issues in either one. Although, I am apparently a faster writer in English than I am in Spanish, according to my current editors.

    Anyhow, how did this happen? I was raised truly bilingual back in Peru. Went to a dual language school where I was taught mostly in English, but everything else in my life was in Spanish. Once I moved to Miami as a teen, I missed Peru so much that I refused to hang out with anybody that didn’t speak Spanish. I’ve been reading in both languages for as long as I can remember and I enjoy both tremendously.

    Now that I’m a mom, I worry that my children won’t have the same upbringing I did and therefore will find themselves bilingual, but not necessarily biliterate… I still have time, since they’re so little, but it does really worry me. Not sure how I’ll make that happen!

  • [...] Tiki Tiki blog has a post that has the author questioning the level of bilingual she is after doing PR for native [...]

  • I have always “thought” I’m fully bilingual, but you’ve made me reconsider. I was born in my country but have lived in the US most my life. I don’t think in Spanish and I certainly cannot express myself as well in Spanish (without much thought) as I do in English. So, yeah, I’m ghetto-lingual. How about that?

    I remember taking a Spanish lit course in school and wondering what the heck they were talking about. It certainly wasn’t the Spanish I was used to. I mean, who says “mendrugo”, really? But I accept that I am who I am. I love my culture and its language but I am fully anglicized as well. It’s all good in the hood.

    Oh, but I totally rock with accent marks. ;)

  • Carrie says:


    I am going to come back and address some of you personally…
    You have made me feel normal, typically bicultural…and I realize that the key for me really, really is to read more in Spanish.

    I won’t beat myself up over what I don’t know, what I don’t remember, but will make every effort to improve. Mainly because I just want to.

    Thank you for the insight and ideas…and fellowship!


  • Tiffany says:

    I think my written Spanish is way better than my spoken Spanish. I am a non-native Spanish speaker who took 3 years of Spanish and majored in Spanish in college. I can speak Spanish fine if I’ve been around it for quite sometime. I have to have my brain thinking completely in Spanish. However, my spoken Spanish freezes up when I am near people who are way better speakers than I. Both my written and spoken Spanish could use some work though!

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