GUVERCIN: Knowing multiple languages can be extremely valuable

Opinions Column: The Bigger Picture

It is the year of 2018, and speaking more than one language has become an expectation rather than a fun fact to add on a resume. In a country as diverse as the United States, bilingualism is an extremely valuable skill that has engendered cultural awareness, adaptation and competition among all Americans. But, despite the convenience of using “bilingual” as an umbrella term to refer to people that speak two languages, it is essential to recognize the significant disparity between people who have simply learned a second language and people who have carried a language with them for generations. Individuals who fall under the latter category are subject to many more obstacles and are under significant pressure to protect their language and continue its legacy within their family lineage. What does this mean? People with immigrant parents and a culturally rich background are expected to maintain fluency in both English and their native language largely out of necessity rather than interest, unlike the individuals in the first category. When someone is born into a language, he or she is also born into an entire culture and community that is ingrained into their simultaneous American identity. That being said, many bilingual people face a set pattern of obstacles during their journey of cultural identification — the consequences can be summed up with either disposing of one of the languages in order to be fully immersed into that of residency, maintaining partial fluency in both languages or maintaining native fluency in both languages. The most unfortunate consequence is the disposal of one language, which is generally one’s native language. There are many individuals who cannot speak their native language despite their parents not knowing English or despite coming from a very culturally rich lifestyle, which is engendered by what can be called “the bilingual dilemma.” 

Many immigrants or children of immigrants commonly face an identity crisis which is highly characterized by their use of language. Unless they are simultaneously immersed in a cultural community that widely encourages the use of their language and the language is constantly practiced by their parents, many bilingual individuals gradually lose their ethnic connection and show a predominant preference for the English language and American culture. The consequences of this dilemma can range from having difficulty traveling abroad and communicating with relatives to feeling detached from one’s cultural background and even to lacking the ability to communicate with one's parents whose English may not be sufficient. 

One can easily feel pressured to adopt the language and identity that one’s environment predominantly poses in favor of preserving an inherited ethnic identity. It is difficult to connect with a culture that is only experienced through parents and relatives, especially if it has traditions and customs that are vastly distinct and aberrant from the immediate culture. Therefore, it is easy to see why so many bilingual individuals can struggle in maintaining connection with both languages. In my own experience, I have realized that had I not been given the opportunity to practice my native language with a social community outside of my family, and had I not been instilled with cultural values that have deeply influenced my understanding of identity, I would be much less comfortable in referring to myself as anything other than an American. I acknowledge that constant practice and appreciation of my language has been the primary outlet through which I have been able to achieve the sense of belonging that many dual heritage people struggle with possessing. 

To be blessed with multiple identities and backgrounds is a valuable asset that can enrich one’s life and experiences, and thus to limit oneself to a single language and cultural identity when one has the opportunity to do otherwise is an extremely unfortunate cost. Although it can still be extremely valuable and enriching, adopting a language and identity through heritage rather than learned experience is more significant and essential in sustaining one’s cultural connections, relationships and futures. I want this to be a call to all bilingual people who have faced any kind of identity struggle in their lives, and ask them to do their best to protect their relations to their languages and cultures. I ask that we collectively learn to accept ourselves as both American and part of another heritage, and not feel obligated to favor one over the other. Dual identity is just as legitimate as a single identity, and language is an essential tool that we can use to preserve it. 

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year double majoring in philosophy and psychology. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Fridays.


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