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

Developing language education at my job

If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!
If we listen to each other, we can learn languages!

Now I see why American places of business don’t make language-learning an important part of work.  I’m a language enthusiast and a supervisor, and it’s hard for me to incorporate language-learning into my workplace, in spite of opportunities.  We have a speaker of Marathi and Hindi on our team, and we speak every day to people in the Philippines.  Personally I meet weekly on the phone with a colleague in Shanghai, and occasionally with folks in Brazil and Portugal.  Yet I have not emphasized learning languages at work, neither for myself nor for my team.  Because even basic language-study helps empathy and goodwill so much, and deeper language-study improves the mind and problem-solving skills, I will begin incorporating language-study into our work.


We speak every day to folks in the Philippines in a way that we could learn basic greetings really well, though our interactions are not conducive to learning the language deeply. Someone will call in from the Philippines.  A basic transfer of information takes place, and the call ends.  The calls are very short and technical, and the people we’re talking to are very busy.  It’s the equivalent of asking the waiter at a crowded restaurant to offer you grammar tips.

We can limit ourselves for now to basic greetings: hello, good morning/evening, how are you? thank you, good-bye.  I would love to expand it to small-talk: are things busy? is the weather nice?  Maybe we could do numbers, as a lot of the information we get is numbers–though I fear for accuracy, which is important.

One day it would be nice to have a teacher give us a lunch-lesson once per week or twice per month.  He or she could come to our team so we could learn a little conversational Tagalog.  Such lessons offer the full benefits of learning a language.

Marathi & Hindi

One of our teammates is a native speaker of Marathi and Hindi.  He calls Marathi his “mother-tongue,” though he speaks Hindi at home with his wife and child for his child’s sake.  Our interactions are more numerous, longer, and wider-ranging.  We have an opportunity to learn more than Tagalog.

How practical is it to learn these languages?  In reality, our area of town has very few Marathi speakers, though there are a lot of South Indians.  So Hindi could be used much more widely than Marathi.  At the same time, Marathi is no obscure language; it represents the 19th most widely-spoken language in the world with 73 million speakersHindi claims 331 million speakers, the fourth most widely spoken language.  Both of them are official Indian languages, though the latter enjoys more penetration into more of the country.

I would like to incorporate at least Hindi into our daily interactions at work.  All of us can build from each other as we greet our colleague in the morning, ask how his evening was, and offer our greetings to his family at the end of the day.  I would like to have a lesson in the room–if he’s up to it–that would be open to me and the rest of the group.

Mandarin & Portuguese

My team is not exposed to these languages on a regular basis–only I am.  In my weekly meetings with my Chinese colleague, I try to speak a little Mandarin, for example, “Hello” and “Thank you.”  Many Chinese people, including my colleague, pick anglicized names for themselves.  I try to use the actual, un-anglicized name of my colleague as much as possible.

I don’t run into much Portuguese, but it’s around.  Another group is working extensively with folks in Portugal, and I occasionally interact with some counterparts in Brazil.  If I needed to, I could learn this language quickly on my own, since I already know French and Spanish.  Greetings and basic phrases are a breeze, since this is a Romance language.

A Plan

I think it’s time to breach the divide.  I will bring languages into our team.  Hindi and Tagalog would be the most common languages.  I will plan to learn and teach a word or phrase per week at our team meetings.  The phrase will focus on daily interactions and IT.  I will ask my teammate to teach me some Hindi in the room, for maybe 20 minutes once or twice a week.  I can get a book to do a little work on my own to (like for learning the alphabet).  We’ll wait for Marathi, Chinese, and Portuguese.

What are the languages you run into at work?  Are you trying to learn them?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Photo credit: abhiomkar / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND