Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Tanya Barrios

Tanya Barrios (which I believe means ‘neighborhood’) is my sister’s BFF from her old job in a super hipstery social media factory. She lives in exclamation points and ‘OMGs’. Tanya goes above and beyond for her friends, loves craft beer, Notre Dame football, and spending time in the beach. Go Irish!


What’s your name (accents, characters and all)

Tanya Flora Barrios

Where were you born?

Newport Beach, California

What languages do you speak? What’s your mother tongue?

English and Spanish. Mother tongue is Spanish.

When/how did you learn to speak English? Was it a hard and painful process? 

I learned English as a whole, the summer before I started kindergarten. I think I only knew a handful of words in English before that. It was definitely hard but I think because I was still so young, my brain soaked it up. I remember my dad using Hooked on Phonics with me a lot that summer. The deadline for me to actually speak English was starting kindergarten and I remember being completely uncomfortable talking. I think that might have contributed so much to my social situations in the first years of school. I didn’t speak much, not only because I was shy but because I was so scared that people would make fun of me for not being able to speak English as well as everyone else.

What language do you think in? Dream in?

English to both. Very rarely do I dream in Spanish but those dreams are usually associated with my childhood and very happy 🙂

What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue? 

My childhood, my family, my heritage/race and Mexico as a country itself. And now I’m getting nostalgic about it and want to go visit ASAP. lol

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in?

English, hands down. I think I revert back to my 5 year old self speaking English when I speak Spanish. I’m super self-conscious about it now.

Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what?

Definitely. There are idioms or words that describe emotions in Spanish that I can’t translate into English. I can get close with particular words but it feels like sometimes a Spanish word is a fusion of three words in English. People laugh at me for struggling so much sometimes.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings?

My parents both do, yes, as well as my sister. Growing up my mother and I had Spanglish conversations that sometimes still happen when I’m home visiting. We’ll be out at the store and she’ll have an entire conversation with me in Spanish while I reply in English. People always look at us like we’re insane but I secretly love it. My mom got so exasperated at one point that I wouldn’t answer her in Spanish that now she mostly just speaks to me in English. One of the only ways I keep my Spanish ‘skills’ intact is through conversations with my grandma, who doesn’t know any English. She sees me struggle and try to describe different words and just laughs. I probably should work on that.

Do you feel different when you speak your mother tongue?

Very different. I feel like I channel the inner child in me when I speak Spanish. Spanish, in particular Mexican Spanish, is known for being very sing-songy in tone. My mom used to tell me that I sounded like a completely different person when I spoke in Spanish, which I believe is true. It sounds weird to say but I sound more feminine almost. I also tend to giggle a lot when I speak Spanish. Again, probably because I’m channeling the inner 5 year old in me.

Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?

Incredibly, yes. I know that sometimes people are just intrigued by the fact that you can speak another language but I feel like there’s a lens put on you or an expectation of sorts that whatever you say must be right or sound right. I used to be really shy about it but I think now my Spanish just comes out in front of them if we’re at a Mexican restaurant and I order for people.

Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now?

I definitely think so. When I was in Mexico, people could tell my accent was different but I tried very hard to focus on what I was saying and remember the language I once knew so well. One time though, when I was in Spain at the Prado Museum, I had a conversation with a Spanish woman at the gift shop. It was amazing that I was able to pull out a conversation so well since I hadn’t spoken in Spanish for so long. The best part about this experience was that at the end of it, she asked me where I was from. I told her I was American, specifically from California. She was blown away. She told me that I didn’t sound like any Americans she had ever met before and that I was dispelling the stereotype that Americans can’t speak other languages correctly, which was humbling. Then she gave me a compliment by saying that I sounded like I was actually from Mexico. That actually gave me confidence in trying to regain my knowledge of the language and make more of an effort in speakig it.

Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did u choose it?

Nunca pierdas la humilidad.

It means ‘Never lose your humility.’ I chose it because it is something my grandma has said to me and stressed since I was a little girl. I was told always to be humble and always to do more for others than myself. And I try very hard to stick to that. Plus my grandma raised me so anything she says is gold.

A naughty, naughty word please.

joder – means to fuck with. not like physically [diff word] but like mess around/make fun of etc

Common phrase: ‘No jodas, guey’

A sexy word please.

Engrapadora See:

Obviously I’m just kidding. Hmm a sexy word. I really like ‘Sensualidad’ – it translates the same and means sensuality but saying it in spanish and the way you can slow down each syllable makes it super sexy.

“Alice is almost as cool as her older sister Emily”

Alice y Emily son chidos en sus propios maneras

Translates: Alice and Emily are cool in their own ways 😉

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
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