Written by Christina Lopez.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2018 “Rebirth” Issue.
My first words were the punchlines to jokes in Spanish that my grandma taught me. After I was born, both of my parents were working and attending school, so my grandma raised me. Born in Juarez, Chihuahua in Mexico, she immigrated to El Paso, Texas after having her first child. She taught me everything from colors to numbers in Spanish.
Every time I see family that I haven’t seen in years, they ask me if I still tell jokes in Spanish. Unfortunately, I don’t. When I started public school, my mom decided not to place me in a bilingual class because as a bilingual teacher, she saw how differently children were treated by the school system simply for not being fluent in English. I quickly lost my Spanish and, until recently, I could barely hold a simple conversation with my grandma.
My inability to communicate frustrated me and made me realize that I expected everyone to understand or speak the language that I spoke and how unfair that was because, at one point, I couldn’t speak English.
For this reason, I decided to relearn my first language.
The Bilingual Advantage defines bilingualism as the ability to express oneself with ease in two languages, but reigning in bilingualism into this simple definition is not completely accurate. Culture is a large element of a language that many disregard, and it is impossible to separate one from the other. Spanish professor Dr. Silvia Ramírez defines bilingualism as,
“conocer lo que es lectura, escritura, conversación de dos lenguas, pero dos lenguas y dos culturas porque no puedes hablar de pura lengua sin cultura.” (To be familiar in literature, writing, and conversation in two languages, but understanding two languages and two cultures because you can’t speak the language without culture.)
For UT senior Monica Hinostroza, the relationship between culture and language is an intimate one. “Being bilingual taught me that we should appreciate the fact that we have two cultures and not just one, and how important it is to respect and honor the language of my immigrant parents who came here to give me a better life,” Hinostroza said.
Being bilingual also has some cognitive and personal advantages, including an improved ability to focus, enabling learning more languages, a deeper appreciation of other cultures, and access to new job opportunities and travel. Dr. Ramirez said being bilingual “agranda tu mundo” (enlargens your world). She claims that the disadvantages are societally based. Having an accent or mixing two languages when constructing sentences in your mind can produce prejudice in native speakers or people who don’t speak the languages you do. “Te ven un poco de extanjero,” she said. (They see you as a bit of a foreigner).
Regardless, for those who speak multiple languages, bilingualism becomes a part of their identity. “Sometimes I feel like that I have two completely different identities: my Spanish influenced identity and the English influenced one,” UT freshman Luis Rubio said. It can be difficult to find a balance between both of the cultures that mark your identity, but that balancing act is necessary to stay in touch with your cultures. This was the reason that Hinostroza decided to relearn Spanish, her first language, after losing it when she started elementary school. “I love visiting my family in Mexico,” she said. “I hated not being able to fully communicate my thoughts to them and decided enough was enough.” Many bilingual people who are relearning their native tongue share similar sentiments.
Bilingualism has immense value but is largely undervalued in society.
UT sophomore Danny Lopez said, “Being bilingual is so valuable because communication with others is already a beautiful thing, but knowing another language enhances the experience.” Communication is the first step in breaking the borders of language and forming a more united world. There are prejudices, even some people may not realize they have, against those that do not speak like them. “I’m proud of my accent, because aside from putting [being bilingual] on my resume, the value of it is much deeper… It’s something to be proud of,” Hinostroza said.
When I used to talk to my grandma, I would only say a few of words in Spanish, “sí, no, gracias, yo también” (yes, no, thank you, me too). Now, I am able to have long conversations with her, and it is like getting to know the woman who raised me all over again.