I hear it all the time. People are so impressed that I’m bilingual. They just seem pretty amazed.
“Wait, so you speak Spanish and English fluently?” Yup.
“You don’t have an accent in either language?” Nope.
But I’ll tell you a secret: I had nothing to do with it. It’s kind of like being congratulated on your birthday. “Uh, thanks?” However, the real people who should be receiving that “congratulations” are your parents, specifically your mother for doing all the hard word.
Well, that’s pretty much how I feel when people are amazed by my bilingualism. I didn’t have to work for it, study for it, discipline myself for it or go through the grueling process that learning a language can be. I was born into a bilingual, bicultural home. My father, seeing that Spanish is his only language, only spoke to me in Spanish. But my mother, fluent in both, had to discipline herself to speak to me in English. We were raised in Colombia, so she made sure that we heard English. She read to us, she spoke to us, she sang to us… all in English. For the first many years of our lives, we would respond to her in Spanish. Sure, we could understand what she said, but why would we go through the trouble of saying it in English? And yet, she persisted. She kept enduring the weird stares as we sat on public transportation: the foreign woman speaking English to her white-blonde children, who always responded in perfect Spanish.
We were enrolled in an American school and received an American education. And the rest of our lives we were surrounded by Spanish. But through persistence on my parents’ part and their unwavering commitment to the value of bilingualism, we are now bilingual adults. And this bilingualism has clearly benefited us. Not only in the present, but apparently, in the future, as bilingualism can help delay the onset of dementia. It helps you think creatively and problem-solve complex issues. And well, let’s be honest… it can open up doors for travel and employment.
So, I’ve clearly impressively benefited from bilingualism… but is my bilingualism in itself impressive?
I would argue that it isn’t. I recently saw a photo on Facebook that read:
“A foreign accent is a sign of bravery.”
Wow. I certainly never had to muster up courage to use Spanish or English. But bravery is impressive. Courage is something noteworthy. Every time you hear someone speak with an accent, commend them for their courage. It is impressive.
Learning a language requires hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of hard, tireless work. When you have achieved proficiency in another language, you are a testament of dedication, perseverance and commitment. You are the outcome of many hours of intentionality and hard work. That is impressive.
Don’t they say that the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory? Well, I believe that’s true with languages. I don’t often feel a surge of pride because of my bilingualism… it was just… given to me. But I am working at developing my language skills in Arabic, and I have devoted countless hours to this task. I know that when the day comes when I can comfortably communicate in Arabic… that will be a sweet, sweet victory.
If you’ve ever learned a language, you know what I am talking about. That feeling… it is indescribable: when a blur of sounds strung together begins to sound like words, and once those words begin to sound like sentences and sentences into thoughts and feelings and arguments and ideas! You know the sweet victory of accomplishment.
So no, it is NOT impressive that I speak Spanish and English without a hint of an accent. Rather, I am in awe of those who speak many… carrying their foreign accents like badges of bravery.