Shame and pride of bilingualism: How everyone can benefit from bilinguals

Some marginal people have hidden bilingual powers--a force of good for all
Some on the margins of society have hidden bilingual powers–a force of good for all

Bilinguals represent the margin of US society, and monolingual English speakers, the mainstream. I belong to the mainstream, though I have a deep interest, curiosity, and admiration for the margins. I’ve found how my interest connects with something joyful with speakers of other languages. At the same time, I’ve seen people who are embarrassed of their language, and the descendants of this embarrassment. In both cases, the mainstream and marginal cultures suffer loss.

This week I saw an odd contradiction represented by a couple of different ways that bilingual folks view their native language. Briefly put, one was ashamed to speak about their language; the other didn’t want to stop talking about it. (I’ve changed some details to protect people’s identities.) I also saw an ethnic community here in Minneapolis, where the language pretty much disappeared, leaving only the names of a few foods. These experiences showed me that preservation of languages in the US require engagement from both the mainstream and marginal linguistic communities. When we engage individuals’ interest in their language, the language continues to the next generation, and all of society benefits.

Pride in one’s language

At work I learned a lot about the Hmong language. I had the opportunity to talk to a co-worker who is a native speaker of this language. I learned about the dialects. There are two, not entirely mutually-comprehensible dialects spoken in China and Laos because the Hmong people originated in China before they moved south. As far as I know, the Hmong immigrants in the US come almost exclusively from Laos. My friend told me that a group of Chinese Lao folks came to Minnesota, and their songs sounded Chinese to him.

He also taught me about the complex writing systems of Hmong. The most standard writing system uses the Latin alphabet. It uses letters to represent the tones. For example, the word for hello is written “Nyob zoo,” but is pronounced “Nyaw zhong.” The “b” at the end of the first word stands for a high tone. (This differs from Vietnamese that uses complex diacritics for tones.)

We could have talked for hours. I don’t know how often he gets to talk about his native language, but it was clearly a delight for both of us.

Shame in one’s language

In contrast, I recently met a friend of my daughters who speaks Tagalog (Philippines) at home–and she had no interest in talking about it. She speaks the language at home, though she speaks English mostly with her sisters. Her aunt, though, does not speak English, so they have to speak Tagalog to each other.

I asked how to say names of food and “hello,” and she claimed not to know anything, that she never speaks the language. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to learn some of this language, but it didn’t happen. We talked a little about Philippino food, but that was as far as it went.

Consequences of bilingual shame

This week I also went to an ethnic festival; the identity of the ethnicity I saw does not matter because it demonstrates the standard fate of ethnicities in the US. The festival included a handful of foods, referred to by their traditional names, and some costumes. The only time I heard the language spoken was by recent immigrants. Some older folks of this ethnicity in their 70s spoke only English.

These people’s parents or grandparents probably went through the same thing as my Tagalog acquaintance. When they were little, they were embarrassed about being different, so they shoved the language aside, so by the next generation, the language was gone from the community, completely replaced by English. Only the foods and clothing remained.

Standing out as a bilingual

I saw this week that people have a deep love of their language. Though they may not have many chances to talk about it, they love the opportunity. At the same time, this can be a source of embarrassment. After a while, the embarrassment causes the language to atrophy, so that it plays no role, or maybe a very reduced role, in the next generation.

Some think that the way to bring non-English speakers into the mainstream of US culture, we need to teach them English, but we could be more successful if we brought their native or home language to the dialogue. When we show interest in the language of the bilinguals around us, we allow them to integrate into society better because they can engage their whole self–including their language.

Moreover, the mainstream culture benefits, too. Every member learns more ways of thinking and problem-solving. Diversity of thought leads to more intelligence. Highlighting bilinguality even encourages our monolingual culture to learn another language so that everyone can benefit from another language–and the joy it brings.

What can the mainstream do to encourage bilinguals? How can bilinguals benefit the mainstream?

Photo credit: c@rljones / Foter / CC BY-NC


13 thoughts on “Shame and pride of bilingualism: How everyone can benefit from bilinguals

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I know many people who is ashamed of their language here in Europe. I guess it happens everywhere. If the minority language is not valued in some way by the society, people tend to hide it and finally stop talking it. For example Italians who immigrated to Switzerland in the ’60ies: they didn’t even teach their children to talk Italian at home – and, nota bene, Italian is one of the four languages spoken in Switzerland! I must say, that most of them did talk a dialect, so they probably felt it’s useless that their children talk this dialect while living in Switzerland…
    But from a linguistic point of view, every language (it can also be a dialect!) is worth to be talked. Obviously, finding other people who share the same language when it’s a very specific dialect, becomes a great challenge.
    The mainstream can incourage bilinguals by showing interest in the other language, by being open minded towards minority languages. But it seems (still) utopian to me. It’s difficult to convince a monolingual society that knowing another language, even if it’s not one of the most dominant languages of the world, is still an advantage and beneficial.
    And how can bilinguals benefit the mainstream? By being proud to be bilinguals and by sharing their knowledge. – This seems easy but it really is not…


    1. Thank you so much for your reply! And I hadn’t even thought about Europe. Thank you for the Italian/Swiss example. Now that you mention it, the same process happened in Spain for the Basque language, though now it’s seeing a revival. I don’t know how Breton is doing. Ukrainian is on the fence in Ukraine, as many folks are moving away from speaking their local Ukrainian dialect towards speaking Russian.

      I think that the bilinguals in a monolingual society have a duty to teach. The benefits are far from obvious, but advocates should make them more obvious. As you say, though, it seems easy but it really is not.

      I think the mainstream can advocate on behalf of knowing multiple languages, and that will reduce some of the shame. The advocates can raise the prestige of learning more than one language.


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  3. I sometimes wonder if the phenomenon of “Denglisch” is partially caused by linguistic shame (or at least feelings of linguistic inferiority). In modern German, so many English words and phrases are used, even when there are perfectly good German equivalents (or where German equivalents could easily be invented). In my opinion, this is beginning to get to the point where it impairs the sound and orthography of the language. Sadly, many Germans seem to have swallowed this nonsense that English is somehow “cooler” or more modern than their language.


    1. I see what you mean. When I was in Kiev, I met a missionary from Germany. He didn’t speak Russian, so he spoke English all the time. he wasn’t teaching his kids German because it “wasn’t practical.” That was one of the strangest ideas to me. Why would you not speak to your own children in your native language?

      I think the idea of “practical” for languages is very narrow–a superficial prestige. It lacks substantial connection with a culture. I think that this narrow definition begets “Denglisch.” If Germans in the US created Denglisch, that would be one thing; German from the family and English from the broader culture would naturally creat “Denglisch” (eg, Spanglish and Chinglish). But the prestige of English in Germany forces the English into the language. Fortunately, people are not forgetting German.

      Of course, this is common, too. In India, using American slang in Hindi is “cool,” and in Morocco, using French words is considered high class. We’ll see what German looks like in 100 years!


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  5. hopefullanguagelearner

    I think one of the things the mainstream can do is be more encouraging of language learning. A lot of times if someone asks me what I’m doing, and I say practicing my Japanese or Esperanto I get a negative or hostile response. What if someone who speaks Japanese is within earshot, what kind of message does that send to native speakers when anyone nonnative tries to learn it and they are met with at best murky neutrality?


    1. That’s a good point–I had never thought of that. It’s one thing if a Somali looks at me funny when I speak Somali, but different if a Caucasian American looks at me funny when I speak Somali when a Somali is present.

      Only you can make fun of your mom, so to speak. I never thought about how one has to speak respectfully of others’ languages. Thank you!


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  7. I stumbled across this article and am so happy to have found it. I’ve tweeted it to share as there’s such an important message in it for those of us who are bilingual (or multilingual) – be proud of your heritage, language and culture. Every culture (which includes language) contributes so much to humanity and helps us understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going, our journeys we chose and why… Bilingual people should be encouraged to proudly speak about their language and culture, starting in schools! Really an awesome piece!


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