I’m not crazy, I’m bilingual

“How was your trip?” various family members asked me the week we returned from El Salvador.

“Loved it,” I’d say, “I didn’t want to leave.”

“Really?” they would respond, “But, why?”

Clearly I had not answered as expected.

When people asked the “why” though – I began to fumble.

“I don’t know, I’m just happier there. I haven’t really processed all that yet,” I’d say, to blank stares as they waited. Surely there must be a reason!

“The colors are brighter there,” I’d offer, feeling foolish.

How can the colors be brighter there? Is that scientifically possible?

All I know is that here in my suburban neighborhood in the United States, my house and all the other 150 houses in the neighborhood, are some variation of the same color – white, cream, beige, eggshell. When I take a walk in our neighborhood, there’s nothing to see. It’s boring cookie-cutter house after another.

In El Salvador, houses are bubble gum pink, lemon yellow, parrot green, and sky blue. Even everyday objects there – laundry baskets, chairs, flowers, seem more colorful. It makes me happy. I walked literally miles on the streets, distracted by all there was to see, without growing tired.

Two school girls walking in the rain – Izalco
A boy with balloons – Chalatenango
Looking out a window – Soyapango

I tried again to explain, “why” I hadn’t wanted to leave El Salvador, taking multiple verbal paths that went nowhere.

“I feel more inspired there” was another dead end.

Finally – “Here in the United States, everyone keeps to themselves. They stay locked in their houses. In El Salvador everyone goes out. Strangers talk to each other, and everyone has a story to tell.”

One of my family members spoke up, “But why would you like being in a place that is more social when you’re anti-social? You always say how shy you are.”

“But I’m not anti-social in El Salvador! I’m not shy when I speak Spanish!” I countered immediately. More blank stares.

Someone changed the topic of conversation, faces turned away from me and I was left to wonder if I was crazy.

Since that day of failing to express myself, failing to communicate, failing to connect with my own family in my native language, I have thought about the “why” a lot. Now, I wondered, not just “Why am I happier in El Salvador” but “Why am I not shy when I speak Spanish?” … None of it made any logical sense.

And then I found an article on PsychologyToday.com called, “Language: My Spanish Side.”

I read:

“Bilingual people display differing personality traits depending on which language they are speaking, researchers have found. Psychologists at the University of Texas, Austin, asked bilingual Mexican-Americans a set of questions designed to assess personality, such as “Are you talkative?” and “Do you tend to be disorganized?” Many participants changed their answers when questioners switched from Spanish to English or vice versa.”

After I read that article I nearly cried with joy. I’m not crazy! I’m just bilingual!


Other recommended reading: Articles by François Grosjean, Ph.D – a Professor of psycholinguistics and the author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality.”


  1. Hi Tracy,
    I have noticed this before, too! When I sing in Spanish, I feel so much more comfortable and I have much less fear than when I song in English. And I feel that Spanish better reflects my personality. Interesting, isn’t it? I love your blog and cannot wait for your next brilliant post :)


  2. I never thought about it that way, but I think that I would also respond differently to the questions if I were asked about each language that I speak. I have to be very comfortable with people before I open up in Spanish, but I’ll talk a stranger’s ear off in English.

  3. Tracy,
    If something is emotional, or stressful, or intimate, spanish is my preferred language. But if a topic is intellectual, or having to do with politics or technology, I switch to english. Maybe I “feel” in spanish and “think” in english. Are you split in a similar manner? Maybe I just lack vocabulary for some situations. Isn’t it funny how bilingual we can be, until something comes up for which we have no words?

  4. This makes so much sense! I feel WAY better and much more confident in Spanish than I do in English even though I’m not as fluent in Spanish as I would like to be.

  5. I’m bilingual too, but I feel more comfortable in English than in Mandarin. Maybe it’s because I was born in an English-speaking Chinese household. Only able to understand parts of Bahasa Melayu, in both speech and written form. Strange but true.

  6. Yes, I wish that holidays will just stretch a bit longer and we are happier because we are out of our usual routine. Also, I feel that you are more sociable when you are away because you meet different people and get friendly with those around you.

  7. I was born in the U.S. to an Italian American family and lived in Paris for 12 years.French is the language a logic and intellect, English is for everyday life, and Spanish is for strong emotion. I can be quite serious in my work, and then a Spanish student comes in and I start rattling off as if it were my first language. I know enough Italian for singing and for casual conversation. In American Sign Language, I still look like a confused hearing person!

    People have noticed three distinct “personalities” in my strongest languages. I do prefer Spanish because of my Dominican husband, who does not have the same ease with languages. He says he’s bilingual in “badly spoken Spanish and lots of nonsense.”

  8. Love it! I can relate! I feel like a different person when I’m with other Spanish speakers and speaking Spanish (however imperfect it may be). Nice to know there is a reason and I do not have a multiple personality disorder…LOL

  9. Hello Tracy,

    Great post. I completely understand where you´re coming from! I´m from Uruguay and I´ve been in the U.S. since 2004. I always lived in very “American” towns. Last year I told my husband that I didn’t know how much longer I could take not having my culture and my neighborhood as part of my life. I was ready to go back! The best thing we could have done is move to Miami 2 months ago, but WE DO NOT live in the suburbs, we live in a neighborhood. I walk to work, I walk to my son’s school, I could walk to the grocery store and I just traded-in my SUV for a small, mega compact car. Miami has the added value that I have almost anything I can desire from back home.

    Not many people understand this until they see it or live it!


  10. I’m the exact same way, but in reverse. I’m more shy when I speak in Spanish. And it’s not because I don’t feel comfortable with the language. Was never really able to explain it, until now. :P

  11. How funny. I was attempting to write up a blog about this. I’m so glad you wrote this and found that article. I understand completely, I’ve been telling people since I was young “I like being crazy”. At a very young age I decided to teach myself Spanish, I definitely felt it allowed some part of me to come out that was somehow locked up in the English language. Later I studied linguistics, mantra, poetry etc. as well as the Sanskrit and Muskogee(Creek) languages. At one point I decided to travel with my family, living mostly in the wilderness and completely abandoning the English language.

    It was so liberating. I stayed mostly in Florida and close to Spanish-speaking areas. I’m not even fluent in Spanish, but I can fool people sometimes! I could not explain to anyone besides my husband and a few other yogi’s and artists why I loathed speaking in English…it was a powerful time for me to break out of a mold I was trying to fit into.

    Eventually I decided to speak English again so I could communicate with my family. Imagine how difficult it was to explain to my family that I preferred being homeless and living in the “wilderness” than living in a house! My father-in-law actually spent some time in El Salvador and came back saying “you guys should move there!”

  12. Great post Tracy, now I feel like I am normal and not actually suffering from schizophrenia. I really do have two completely different personalities depending on the language I am using.

  13. Buenisisisisimo post amiga!!! That explains a lot… but still I feel your connection to Latin culture is beyond scientific explanations. I really do. Speaking Spanish doesn´t give you that connection right away, if that were true every bilingual person would immediately fall in love with Latinos and all our surreal world.
    I really thing there is something else there… you know what I mean. This is a way deeper, ancient call from somewhere inside of you. For sure. ; )
    And I love you for that!
    Un abrazote amiga mia!

  14. Great post! I can be in a bad mood or just on my own world when I’m outside but if someone talks to me in Spanish it immediately makes me smile and changes my mood. I’m very shy but when I’m talking to mi gente I feel comfortable. So I understand how you can be more talkative when you are en El Salvador.

    Like Jennifer said, I too have different personalities with each language…

  15. I’m not very bilingual, but I appreciate this post as I experiment with culture hopping being married to a Guatemalan. There is a Spanish side to me that feels very different and it’s hard to explain. Thanks for this enlightening post!

  16. I don’t know if i’m two different people according to which language I speak, but I have noticed that I’m more comfortable talking about my feelings in English. Maybe it’s because it was the language in which my mother first spoke to me as a baby. But sometimes there’s things I just have to say in Spanish, like jokes or stuff. Besides I’ve also noticed that my voice changes in pitch according to the language I’m speaking in. It’s higher for English and lower for Spanish. does the same happen to any of you?

    • I would say my voice is slightly higher and more energetic in Spanish – I’ve never understood why. Spanish isn’t like Mandarin Chinese where pitch matters, but it feels like it does somehow.

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