Growing up in a bilingual home

Experience has advantages, but can cause one to feel different from others.


I asked two groups of Latino students recently to help me describe what it means to grow up bilingual.

They were seventh-graders, eighth-graders and high schoolers, and they participated eagerly. They had a lot to say on the subject.

I undertook this project because I knew what it was like growing up in South Bend speaking a foreign language and I was curious about what our experiences might have in common.

I wanted to know how they felt about being different in that way — did they perceive being bilingual and bicultural as an advantage over others or as an excuse for others to cast them aside or make them a target of discrimination? Or both?

I was 13 when my family moved to South Bend from a small town in Switzerland, and I knew enough English to test out of ESL (English as a second language).

I was born in Mexico and Spanish is my native language. In the two years we had lived in Switzerland I had become fluent in French and learned to speak a little German. I had learned French pronunciation well enough to pass for a local, but with English it would be different.

I did well enough in English class here that after one semester my teacher moved me to honors English, and I started high school in AP English. But I always spoke it with an accent, and that set me apart from the very beginning.

I heard a dumb joke once that I seem to remember only because it holds a grain of truth. It goes something like this. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. One language? American.

For some reason, perhaps because the United States has traditionally welcomed so many immigrants with so many different languages, there seems to be an ingrained assumption here that unless everyone speaks English, all hell might break loose. It’s far from an absurd thought, but it likely gives rise to the irrational fears that fuel English-only proclamations and anti-immigrant sentiments. And it fails to take into account the reality that most of the rest of the world already is bilingual.

Whatever its roots, the experience of being bilingual here is unique but also one that a growing number of people share.

Like the students I interviewed, I, too, grew up believing that speaking a second language gave me a practical advantage over the monolingual, but also feeling that it made me different in a way not everyone seemed willing to appreciate.

Like the students I spoke with, I, too, wondered what the right approach was to deal with the occasional jab against my native language or culture.

Like others who speak English with a foreign accent, I, too, tried to hide it at times. It was a needless distraction and gave rise to unwelcome assumptions, like when a caller told me she couldn’t believe I was a reporter for The Tribune because I spoke with an accent.

But how we come to terms with what makes us different as people of two cultures, and how we learn to make the most of it in sometimes unfriendly climates is a personal journey, and one that I’d like to hear from you about.

Please call me or e-mail me, and help me describe what this experience is all about.

Staff writer Pablo Ros: (574) 235-6357