Becoming Bilingual: An Experience That Changed My Life

by John Nobile Carvalho
Photo of John Nobile Carvalho

John Nobile Carvalho is a Biochemistry major from Uberlandia, Minas Gerais, Brazil. John’s inspiration for writing this paper was in finding the most significant and impactful moments of language learning. The reason he considers his essay important is “because during the writing process I was able to recall memories and think of the journey I’ve been on, and all the challenges I’ve faced while learning two languages.” He also credits remote learning with providing plenty of time to devote himself to his studies and this project: “I was aware that this factor could help me focus and write something interesting for people who are not bilingual as well as people who are bilingual.” Besides being a student, John is also a musician and a book lover, and counts the blues and science-fiction books among his passions. He states that he “could never live a day without playing my guitar for a few minutes, or not reading a few pages of a book. These are the two ways I have to escape reality and enjoy the moment.”

The process of becoming a bilingual person can be seen as a long journey, which has several challenges, but at the same time several achievements. Learning a new language can be considered a challenge because it goes far beyond just learning to use words, expressions and knowing how to apply correct grammar, and what I mean by that is that you have to make mistakes, live in situations where you feel vulnerable, and go through difficulties. Even though it is not a simple task, I believe that this process allows us to develop persistence, willpower, maturity and a lot of discipline. Given the explanation, I ask myself the following question: what was my process of becoming bilingual, and how did that make me who I am today?

Well, my journey started relatively early in my life. The first memories I have in mind, when I had contact with the English language, was around the age of 7 years old. I mainly remember the moment when my father used to listen to songs that had quite different lyrics than what I was used to listening to in Brazilian music. I remember asking my dad what those words were and what they meant, and I also remember referring to them as ‘‘strange words.’’ I can perfectly remember the way my father had explained to me that it was English; he said it was a type of language that human beings use and that in particular it was used elsewhere in the world. That fascinated me, and with each day that passed by, I would ask my father to show me more and more music by American artists; this led me to develop a passion for Blues, Rock, Jazz, and Soul Music. I loved the rhythm, melody, and harmony of the songs of these musical genres, but there was a big problem. I could not understand practically anything about what the lyrics were saying, and that was quite frustrating.

After a while, it started to bother me, so I realized it was time to take an initiative. I realized it was time to seek to understand the meaning of the lyrics of the songs I loved so much. I remember sitting on the floor of my room, trying to read and pronounce each word in the rhythm in which I heard them in the songs. I also remember feeling quite angry at first because I could not understand anything at all. Over time, this curiosity made me discover that I could use online translators and websites that made music translations available from English to Portuguese. At that moment I realized that there were no more limits for me. I knew that everything would start to flow naturally.

Basically, my relationship with the English language started to develop organically, and after a few months of practicing English, the words that did not make any sense started to make all the sense. I was obsessed with learning new words, phrases, and expressions. When I least expected it, with the help of subtitles, I was able to watch cartoon shows, movies, and documentaries in English. I felt fulfilled when I was able to understand certain simple dialogues, for example in the video games that I used to play, and for me, that was rewarding. Another memory I have was when I joined elementary school, and the public school where I studied used to offer English classes, and I remember having ease in these classes thanks to all the effort and dedication that I had put into studying and practicing English on my own.

As time went by, my relationship with the English language was solidifying and becoming stronger and stronger. I practically did not listen to music in Portuguese anymore; I did not care about watching cartoons and films in Portuguese anymore, which made me more immersed into American culture. I remember in 2009, when I was only 11 years old, my cousins and colleagues who played football with me asked me why I did not like to watch Brazilian and South American football like “A Liberators da America” (South American Tournament). I always said that European football championships like the Premier League (from England) were more interesting, but they did not understand that I thought it was interesting because I was discovering a “new world”. Right after I turned 14, my parents gave me my first skateboard, and it motivated me, even more, to continue learning things related to English and American culture. I used slang in English with my friends and tried to speak in English with my English teachers at school. I used to sing and play songs in English. I found it fascinating the fact that in less than seven years I had already learned so much about English.

During these seven years of studying and learning the English language, I remember listening to a lot of people around me, like my parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and several friends saying that I was doing the right thing. English was a synonym for “success and mystery” in my mind. They used to say “João, you must learn the English language, as this will bring you great opportunities in your future”. Everyone was absolutely right, and I say this because all the incentives and motivations they gave me were essential for my evolution and progress. I am incredibly grateful mainly for my parents, because thanks to them, I was able to have access to a good education. I was able to access the necessary resources to continue making progress. Without them none of this would have happened, and I would never have gotten as far as I did.

Now, after fourteen years of dedicating myself to studying the English language, I realize that my view on it has changed dramatically. At first, I was just a child venturing into a strange and unknown language, and that was incredibly attractive. When I say that my vision has changed drastically, I mean that now this language is not only a source of curiosity. It has practically become the tool that allows me to connect with the world, and in a way even with myself. I can say with all conviction that being bilingual is one of the most important tools I have in my life. I would say that English for me today is like the oxygen that I breathe all the time, and what I mean is that I can no longer live without it.

English is not just another language that exists in the world. For me, English has shaped my identity and the person I am today. What I mean by that is that English is not just a language, in my life it goes much further. A beautiful example that I always carry in mind is how English made me develop a beautiful conception of music. I consider myself a musician, and I consider music as one of the greatest inventions of mankind, and thanks to the English language I was able to venture into the world of music. Nowadays I study music every week in English: I play in concerts; I play with my friends, so through this example, it is evident how English managed to shape one of the main characteristics of my identity. Another example that comes to mind is that since I was a child, my biggest dream of all has been to become a scientist in the future. That dream only started after I watched countless scientific documentaries, read several books by phenomenal scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and with every day that passes I am sure that my dream will be realized. Thanks to English, I was able to develop the habit of reading, watching documentaries, searching for information and building knowledge, and in my opinion, I think this is incredible. Through the study of this language, I was even able to value my mother tongue even more because like English, Portuguese is an intriguing and spectacular language that I am proud to speak.

To emphasize how crucial the process of becoming bilingual has been in my life, I can tell you how my life has changed completely since I moved to the United States. My first real contact with American society was a wave of feelings and emotions. To clarify what I am trying to say, I could use the experiences of author Orhan Pamuk (2007) as an example, when he describes how frustrating and difficult it is to adjust and adapt to a new culture and a new language. The silence was sometimes my only form of expression, as it was his. However, the best part is that this “wave of feelings and emotions” made me realize that all the years of study and my effort should be valued and put into practice. After a few months, I already felt more comfortable, so I was able to enjoy everything that this new environment had to offer me. I developed not only a love affair with the English language but also with the city of Boston. I had an epiphany and a profound reflection that, like Brazil, the United States is also the place I refer to as home.

This leads me to another interesting and profound reflection that I have been experiencing lately. The fact of moving to the United States is not only a great opportunity to have a beautiful future, and it is not just another phase of my life. It is also an opportunity to be able to connect worlds and cultures. Amin Maalouf (1998) clearly describes how beautiful it is that bilingual people living in other countries can be sources of knowledge, and according to him, these people have a great responsibility in acting as bridges that connect different cultures.

Maalouf is absolutely right, and his reflection resonated with me because I feel this responsibility; I feel responsible to share the American culture with my friends and family who live in Brazil. Likewise, I am responsible for sharing Brazilian culture with American society. I think this is extremely important because if I do that, I can make a difference in the world, I can help the world. I can help the world become a harmonious place, and I feel that I can use the knowledge I have to help people to develop more empathy, respect, and love for people from different places and cultures. Being bilingual and living in another country means having the responsibility to help people and eliminate any kind of prejudice, intolerance, and misunderstanding that they have in mind.

Given all these facts, contexts, and personal experiences, I return to my question: what was my process in becoming bilingual, and how did that make me who I am today? Well, the answer is quite simple, I have had an incredible journey so far. Every second studying English, all my effort, every person involved, every mistake made, every learning experience — all of this was crucial to getting me to where I am today. This journey brought me knowledge and reflections, which helped me to better understand the world and myself. I would never have imagined that English would bring me so many opportunities — all of this was beyond my expectations. I am sure that English will bring me more unique experiences, and I can say with all gratitude that I am ready for all of them.


Maalouf, Amin. (1998). Deadly Identities (Brigitte Caland, Trans.). Al Jadid, 4(25). Retrieved from

Pamuk, Orhan. (2007, April 7). My First Passport: What Does it Mean to Belong to a Country? (Maureen Freely, Trans.). The New Yorker. Retrieved from