I am bilingual myself but I don't think it affects me in any way. But I think that's because I am not in a position to speak the language on a day to day basis.

But the character has to travel between two different countries. They know both languages very well but speak one more than the other, so if they travel to a place where the less spoken language is spoken would that affect them?

Of course, they tend to mix both languages sometimes, or mix up the grammar once or twice, but is that it?

Culture plays an important role, I know, but they had been exposed to both cultures and know what happens here and there but this time the visit is going to be prolonged.

Should it even affect the storyline?

  • 1
    May I surmise that you are American or Australian, where being bilingual was uncommon until recently? In many other parts of the world, just about anyone with an education is bilingual. That's not generally true of the common folk, but it is likely to be true of anyone whom you meet while traveling, because they have to be multilingual to converse with you! I have not seen any angst among them. So, my intelligent guess is that being bilingual has little personal effect. The English language is inherently "bilingual," with Latinate and Germanic aspects.
    – user23046
    Mar 26 '17 at 12:44
  • @RobtA "...American ... where being bilingual was uncommon until recently?" Last time I checked America was the nation of immigrants. ...The English language is inherently "bilingual"... Lost me there. It is not what bilingual means.
    – Lew
    Mar 27 '17 at 13:00
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    "Bilingual" means you speak two languages as if they were your mother tongue. (wordreference.com/definition/bilingual) Even in countries where a second language is compulsory at school, very few people are bilingual. I'm fluent in English, passed a C2 examination with flying colours and I am still not bilingual. Only if you grow up (especially the first 8 years) in a country / city / home with two languages can you become bilingual. Or if you go to a foreign school. Mar 27 '17 at 18:48
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    @SaraCosta True in general, but one can learn the second language to the level of absolute fluency, even if they were not exposed to it in the first years of their lives (although it is very hard and requires a dedicated instruction with personalized immersive instruction). While technically it would not make them bilingual, the result will be indistinguishable. I am not arguing, though, it is uncommon.
    – Lew
    Mar 28 '17 at 13:02

Being Bilingual has very little effect on a person's daily life, for one main reason; the two languages they speak are combined to be similar to speaking just one language. Its similar to the idea of formality vs. informality, you speak to your boss differently than you would speak to a close friend. A bilingual English and Chinese speaker will speak English to other English speakers, and Chinese to other Chinese speakers.

However, there are sometimes slip ups - for example, you may incorporate slight amounts of your dominant language into your slightly weaker one. Just like how sometimes you might say 'sup' or 'nah' to your boss on accident because you're used to informal speech - a dominant English or Chinese speaker may find they add small quirks to their speech when speaking their weaker, or recessive language. Native Chinese speakers sometimes incorporate the words 'Aiyah' to express dissatisfaction, or replace words they don't know in English, and vice versa.

If you want to emphasise someone's bilingual nature, why not play on that idea? Have the character slip up with their native language, or use slight quirks in their speech patterns. If your story can come up with a reason for this to affect the overall aim for the protagonist, for example if you're writing a "get the girl" romance, being bilingual may lead the character to have new contacts - or run into a funny coincidence that allows the two characters to bond, or find the girl in the future.


Being bilingual means that you have a 'feel' towards two languages that only natives have. You can be absolutely fluent in a language but, because you aren't bilingual, there are certain subtleties of the language that you'll never grasp, even if you may have perfect grammar and a larger vocabulary than most natives.

Being bilingual often means that you'll prefer to talk about some topics in Language A and others in Language B. I remember reading a paper about a school in Belgium (an area where people spoke both French and German) that had Maths in German. The Belgium students, even though they preferred using French for most of their daily life, had a tendency to do maths in German (eg. if they went to the supermarket and were asked to do quick sums and subtractions, they'd receive the instructions in French, do the Maths in German and report the results in French). This means that, even if you're bilingual, you can still prefer to use one language for a certain task.

From the examples you give, I've got the feeling you're not talking about truly bilingual people (speaking two languages as natives). That means that, when they're in the country whose language they don't fully grasp, they may have difficulty with vocabulary they don't often use, they may fall for false friends, they may not understand jokes or heavily accented forms of the language, they may have trouble understand what is being said 'in-between' the lines.

I spent a fortnight in the UK and, while talking to locals, I realised that I lacked the vocabulary to talk about some daily activities, namely food (some foodstuff being common in a country but not in the other) and specific housechores, but also objects and concepts that don't translate easily (the idea of shutters, for example, ellicits very different objects for British and Portuguese native speakers).

Then there are words that are used for different things (false friends). There's a thing called 'bacon' in Portugal, for example, but it has very little to do with American bacon: the former is smoked to the point you don't need to cook it; the latter may be smoked, but you must cook it before you eat it. Imagine the faces when I said I'm not a fan of fried bacon, that I prefer to put it in the bread and eat it as is. I couldn't understand my friends' horror until they showed me the bacon they had in the fridge.

Finally, speaking a second language implies a bit more effort than speaking your native language. I spent two weeks hollidaying in France (my command of that language is passable); when I returned home, I was mentally exhausted from the effort of speaking French for so long. I spent two weeks hollydaying in the UK; I felt perfectly comfortable and it didn't feel tiring in the least, but when I returned home, I felt a pleasure at hearing my language as one who's never been in the situation can't imagine.

Since you say you are bilingual (although I believe you mean you speak a second language, please correct me if I'm wrong), the ideal thing would be for you to spend a week in a foreign country using only your second language. It would give you a good idea of the impact in first-hand. If that isn't possible, try to read accounts of people who lived in another country.

In conclusion, yes, spending a lot of time in a country where locals speak your second language does have an impact. How big an impact depends on how poor your command of the language is. Since your characters have a good command, it should have little impact; limit it to trouble understanding heavy accents and idioms, as well as to certain topics (eg., I don't get on with mechanics, so if someone starts speaking in English about engines I'm going to draw a blank no matter how good I am at other lexical areas).

In my opinion, cultural aspects have a much greater impact, no matter how fluent you may be in the language.

  • While I agree with you in general (especially when you talk about the importance of the immersion in an environment where a different language is spoken continuously), I have to note that the given examples (about the bacon, for instance) have more to do with cultural differences than language. I was once offered a drink by a Canadian friend, (residing in the US for a few years), and when I said that I want my whiskey on the rocks, I clearly saw her mind drawing a blank. I had to explain that in the US it means over ice; and if I was to continue your bacon example...
    – Lew
    Mar 28 '17 at 13:15
  • ..."Canadian Bacon" is actually what is called "ham" in the US. All this while speaking the same language–no barrier whatsoever. But once again, you are right in many other aspects.
    – Lew
    Mar 28 '17 at 13:18
  • @Lew: you have a good point. I was thinking about it in the sense of vocabulary (what do you call that thing), but yes, it does have much to do with culture. Mar 28 '17 at 15:54

Being bilingual (or tri- or -insert-a-number) does affect a person's daily life, even if it is not noticeable to an outside observer, much like any other ability, whether it is inherited or developed.

A person with absolute pitch listens to music differently than a person with a regular ear. An avid enthusiast of physical exercise and a couch potato will not react to a broken elevator in the same way.

I have many friends who speak more than one language, and their ability to do so manifests itself differently, depending on the person. Some speak English with an accent, some do not, but the way they build their sentences sounds odd once in a while, and some are fluent to the point that I would never guess that English is their second language. Some might occasionally slip in a word or two in a different language, some never do, etc.

It is for you as an author to decide if you want to expand on any of your character's abilities (whether it is speaking multiple tongues or bouncing bullets off their skin) and make them work for your story. Who is your character, a traveler spice merchant or an undercover sleeper agent? I bet their multi-lingual skills would come into play in a different way.

It is your story, write them as you need them.


I am bilingual in Spanish and English and spent most of my growing up years in Mexico. For me being bilingual has some affects on my life, but not many. I find the cultural affects are far more influential in my day to day life. The feeling of not quite fitting in, in either place and the slightly different way that I view many situations because of the different cultures I have experienced affect me much more.


A person who is "bilingual" will interact with two different groups of people. (Unless all his friends are bilingual in the same two languages.)

So show your character moving from one group of people to another, and talking to each group in their "own" language. It's not the languages but the people who speak the languages that make the difference. (Hence the exception noted in parentheses in the previous paragraph.)

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