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The Benefits and Challenges of Being Bilingual in College

Although being bilingual can be a struggle growing up, having this skill in college can be the key to a successful future.
December 28, 2017
8 mins read

College isn’t easy. Simple as that. If for some reason you’re actually breezing through everything and find you need zero help whatsoever, you’re probably doing something wrong. That isn’t to say some people don’t have an easier time; some do, but everyone has their struggles. Bilingual students, in particular, seem to have double the struggle when it comes to college, if only because having two languages in your head can tangle up your life in ways unknown to those who only speak one language.

Bilingualism itself isn’t as rare as most people believe it to be, especially not in a college setting. It is a skill that many students already have or eventually develop through their college careers. These students that end up with the skill of bilingualism though end up having a different set of struggles and benefits when it comes to dealing with, not only in school, but the world as well. Having the skill of bilingualism is worth everything that comes with it, though. For example, connecting with people becomes easier and if you’re looking for a job it’s a skill that’s eye-catching because it’s useful for employers who cater to multiple nationalities. It is a skill, though many won’t see it that way, and the demand is growing more than ever.

As a student in college, this particular skill will help you connect with others and it will help you dive into the world of diversity that college offers. For example, if you know Spanish in conjunction with English you won’t just connect to Spanish speakers that come from your culture, you could connect with anyone who speaks any type of Spanish. One of the most beautiful things to experience is finding people who speak the same language as you but have a completely different culture than you do. English, for example, is used all over the world. The perspective of this diverse language can be seen differently from someone in Australia than from someone in America—mostly because of the different cultures.

Meeting new people, finding a connection with language and connecting with others is just one of the benefits that comes with being a bilingual student. Being bilingual means having a different perspective on life, whether you realize it or not. Knowing two or more languages opens up your mind to understand the world around you in different ways. Every day as a student you will find commonalities between the languages you speak, and the way people use them—no matter which two languages those are. This is particularly important when becoming a part of a college community, college will test your limits and boundaries, not only when it comes to studies, but also when it comes to dealing with others, with the discovery that everyone shares different views than you. Having an open mind will make your life easier and more enjoyable.

Of course, being bilingual in college comes with its struggles (there’s hardly anything that doesn’t). Bilingualism, especially in America, isn’t always met with an enthusiastic response, especially with all the political tension surrounding America now; it is even viewed as a stigma. It has been a rising problem in America that people don’t want others to speak any other language aside from English. This is because many people believe English is America’s official language and therefore its only language. Even though this obviously isn’t true and anyone should feel free to speak the language they want to, it is still a stigma that is heavily enforced in the U.S. and sadly it comes into play in college settings as well.

Aside from getting strange looks when speaking another language in said college setting, it can also cause tension and awkward situations. If English isn’t your first language, and you have a little more trouble speaking it, or just feel more comfortable speaking your native language, some people pick up on it and don’t always have the most graceful responses. An example of this is professors picking up on the difficulty a student has with English, and instead of helping the student, they decide to make the situation harder for them by focusing on them or pointing out their trouble with it. Of course, not all professors automatically resort to this (in fact, most don’t), but situations like this have come to pass and they seem to be becoming more common as time goes on.

Being ridiculed for knowing anything other than English is a problem that you’d think would go away by the time you reach college, but sadly that isn’t always the case. And aside from being given a hard time, sometimes the logistics of having two languages in your head can get you into awkward situations as well. Mixing up words or forgetting one word in one language but remembering it in the other is common and most of the time you just can’t help when it happens. This isn’t like the stereotype in movies when a character always seems to resort to “How you say…” when they forget a word. It’s more like being in the middle of a conversation in English and knowing what word you want to say next but only remembering how to say it in another.

This can seem funny at times, and it is usually depicted as so in shows and movies, but it can be a real problem. For example, if you are in an important conversation with a professor and you immediately cut off because you have forgotten how to say a word in the language you were speaking, it can become awkward and you might come off as irresponsible or unreliable. It can also just put you into situations where other students will judge you for how you switch between languages.

Being bilingual in college is a unique experience, one that not many people know enough about. It comes with its ups and downs but in the end, it is a really useful skill to have. Having more than one language in your head can get a little confusing at times, but it can also be extremely helpful. More and more students should feel open to the possibility of learning or knowing more than one language—it definitely shapes your college experience in the best of ways.

Valeria Garcia, University of Texas at Austin

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Valeria Garcia

University of Texas at Austin
English Major, Creative Writing Minor

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