Learning 3 languages was a way for me to come to TERMS with bilingualism

It’s getting to the point where I can say I speak five languages. And after learning them I have to say,

Bilingualism is a good thing.

In the past, the prevailing myth about bilingualism is that it retarded linguistic growth in children and kept them from learning other, “more important” lessons they needed to learn. We now know that that’s not the case–and that bilingualism is beneficial.

Growing up with two tongues

As in physically two tongues. That was hard. After the operation, doctors expected me to have long recovery and be able to speak normally within a few months.

Growing up with two tongues

C’mon. I hope you didn’t believe that.

I grew up an English-Spanish bilingual with Spanish as my first language. My father, who was born to Mexican parents in California and moved to the Mexico when he was young was already bilingual and my mom, who was born in rural Mexico and moved to the city only spoke Spanish and had to learn English when they both moved to the US, only spoke Spanish at home.

All of my siblings were born in the US–and we are all bilingual (and then some for some of us).

Until about the age of 3, the only real language I heard was Spanish, since that’s what my parents spoke. Eventually, as I began meeting Anglophone friends, watching English TV, and going to preschool I got introduced to English. The better I got at it, the more I was called upon to translate for my parents.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t think of myself as a bilingual. I didn’t realize that I was switching languages–I was just getting the message across.

Now, the older I got, the more I did realize that not everyone spoke the way I did. That still didn’t deter me from excelling in English. By the 1st grade, I was attending 4th grade reading lessons (those 4th graders were TERRIFYING to me at the time). And the older I got, the more connections I began to notice between both languages.

High School

See, here’s where things began to take a turn. The older I got, the more I realized that Spanish speakers weren’t always welcome in “American life.” I’d notice sidelong glances thrown to Spanish speakers and as I got more interested in politics began to hear the political rhetoric from the right wing.

Speaking Spanish to me was seen as a mark of difference.

When the time came for me to choose a foreign language to learn–I opted for French for two reasons

  1. I already knew Spanish–why not learn a new one rather than take Spanish for native speakers!
  2. Spanish had a stigma that French didn’t
    1. Stigma in that Spanish speakers tend to get lumped into a very certain category. They’re seen as lazy, illegal, and dumb. Based on my family name, Gonzalez, I was placed into Remedial English in addition to the normal English classes in the 7th grade–something that the school administration quickly fixed after I outpaced students in both classes (not that I’m salty or anything, Eastway Elementary School).
    2. Those subtleties of racism tended to be diminished whenever I spoke English. So naturally, I did. But I also set a goal to defy those stereotypes–which I guess was a third reason to become bilingual.

For Spanish, learning French was the best thing I could have done.

The best thing I did

The moment I began learning French was the moment I began to see connections between words. Those connections in turn led to more and more until I was learning French with ease. But the greatest thing of all was meeting the bilingual community around me. I began to see my ability to speak two (rapidly becoming three) languages as a gift rather than a curse.

I started to see some real paybacks from my linguistic skills

  1. Wordplay: I don’t know how much being bilingual has influenced this, but the way I make word associations is like a rapid fire word web. One word leads to another word or sound or concept and that leads to TONS of wordplay and pun, which I love and my friends…love…at times…
  2. Learning more languages: After French came Brazilian Portuguese and German, both for the heck of it. And you know what? There are so many similarities between languages, it’s insane! If you were to look in my German notebook, you’d see references to French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English words. And this is everywhere. In Swedish I noticed similarities to Spanish and German–and can use existing knowledge to reason through *some* sentences.
  3. Ease of communication: Honestly, the best part of this whole multilingual thing is being able to talk to someone in their language. Language can help change perspective–and learning someone else’s tongue and speaking it to them–however broken–can lead to some amazing connections and friendships.

The World United

So yes. Spanish has a stigma. Bilingualism is put on a pedestal and is demonized but at the end of the day–it’s more than just a skill.

Bilingualism is a mindset. It’s a defining characteristic of many people as much as it is a part of their daily lives. For me, it’s been the best thing I have going for me. But I didn’t realize it until after I learned three more languages. Those languages have become a part of my core identity and I can usually find a way to work them all into my quotidian tasks.

For monolinguals–it doesn’t leave you out either. With time, dedication, and a reason to use the language, you can become as bilingual as all anyone else and begin to reap the benefits of having multiple tongues.

I’ve seen friends do it–it’s possible.

So. 21 years later.

After having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly about my talent. I realized that I like it. I’ve started learning more about bi- and multilingualism and what it means for me and for others in general. As a mixed blessing, it’s by far the best one to have.

Featured Image by: Ivan Ivankovic

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