“Multilingualism has been an important part of my identity my entire life,” wrote Maggie Asfahani, who lives on the US-Mexico border and prepares food influenced by a mélange of cultures, informed by her knowledge of Arabic, English and Spanish. “The melting pot exists only the surface,” wrote Roberto G., who described his experiences speaking with an accent and who — like many of those who responded — felt speaking English was the only way to feel included in an “American” way of life.
“My parents refused to teach us in their efforts to protect us,” reflected Vivian R. of her parents’ insistence that she and her siblings learn only English, never Spanish, so they would not face discrimination. “Knowing several languages has helped me with academics, broadened my horizons and enabled me to experience more and empathize with more people on our planet,” wrote Cathee R., who became the first in her family to graduate from university.
To say that the experiences you shared with us were diverse and powerful would be a gross understatement. So it’s fitting that in 2015 a US Census Bureau report found that at least 350 languages were spoken in homes across the United States. In a cultural moment when borders and identity are flashpoints in national and global politics, languages are profound and intimate markers of both.
Many of you wrote poignantly of how a mother tongue was a formative connection — sometimes tenuous, sometimes lost, other times cherished — between yourself and your family, especially your parents. You also shared difficult stories of being bullied or humiliated by peers or feeling pushed to the social margins because of your languages.
Your stories brought home in more radical ways than we could have imagined how the languages we speak, read and even dream in can determine our lives.
Thank you to all the readers who wrote in. Here is a sampling of your responses. Some have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
My mother learned English along with me
Arabic was my first language. I still have tapes of myself reciting the ABCs in English, with the cutest, heaviest accent. My mother learned English as I went to school, learning along with me. I grew up on the border, in El Paso, and still live here, so (I) speak Spanish as well. Multilingualism has been an important part of my identity my entire life. Middle school was rough, though. The civil war in Lebanon and seemingly regular plane hijackings made me ashamed of my heritage. Now, I run a successful local restaurant (Salt + Honey) and am able to serve food influenced by my heritage as well as the local culture.
Maggie Asfahani, El Paso, Texas
What a new language can teach you
I grew up in Peru and had the chance to move to the USA when I was 18 years old. Shortly after I graduated from the University of Washington, I went to France, where I spent five years. Being trilingual has made me more open-minded. It has allowed me to identify myself better with other cultures and people. It has helped me to have a better understanding of why people say what they say and do what they do. I am currently learning Japanese and I am amazed at how Japanese people operate and how important harmony is for them. You can learn so much through a language!
Elsa Sidoine, San Diego
I fell in love with Spanish watching ‘Sesame Street’
I sometimes dream in Spanish. I was first introduced and fell in love with the language by watching “Sesame Street.” I just loved how the words just literally rolled off the tongue. It was beautiful. I still remember (how) the skit from so long ago taught me my first Spanish words, “abierto” and “cerrado” — “open” and “closed.”
When I entered middle school, I was thrilled that I could finally learn the language. I continued studying the language throughout high school. We learned about Hispanic cultures, arts, dialects, foods — it was amazing! I graduated with the highest level of a foreign language, Spanish 5. Since then, I’ve used it on and off in both work and personal settings, but I always try to maintain a level of fluency by using it any chance I get. I guess it’s a part of my subconscious because I sometimes dream in Spanish. It’s like any other dream, but different because I am aware (both in my dream and when I awaken) that everything is taking place in Spanish. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn a different language, and about the people encompassing the vast diaspora who speak it. It has the power to change and expand horizons!
Bakir Brown, Richmond, Virginia
The melting pot exists only on the surface
I came here from Italy in 1991, and besides a few vacation trips and one nine months’ stretch in 2007, I have been living in Central Texas for the last 28 years. Yes, I still have my Italian accent, and still struggle to some extent. Even though I have a career and I have a good job, however, I have always felt that I will not get past a certain point, because of my language and cultural difference. I married an American, lived here as an American, and now I realized that I am quickly losing the grasp on my mother language, Italian. Americans, culturally have problems assimilating other people’s languages and cultures. The idea of a melting pot is an attempt at best, but it exists only on the surface. When you don’t speak the language or the slang, (don’t) speak the (sports) language, and live an “American” way of life, you are considered an outsider and will be one for a long time.
Roberto G., near Austin, Texas
I only speak Chinese with my parents
I speak both English and Chinese. My family and I moved to US when I was 16. I use Chinese particularly with my parents since their English isn’t strong enough to have a lengthy conversation. … They feel closer with me when we speak ‘our native’ language. I feel that because of their strong connection to the culture they (have) grown up with, speaking Chinese makes them feel like themselves. … They’re the only people I speak Chinese with. I’ve spent years learning English on my own, I’ve suffered a lot of humiliation and confusion at high school during my transition time (in) this country. Part of me feels that I’ve left that part of my life behind.
Pam L., Putnam County, New York
Knowing several languages helped me succeed — with greater empathy
I grew up in a household where my parents only spoke Italian to me. My grandparents lived with us and they spoke to me in either Italian or their own regional dialect. By the time I was 5, I was fluently bilingual in both languages. Then I started school. Even though I learned enough English in the first few weeks, I was still meant to feel stupid, different and not cool. Even though my Italian stood me in good stead on vocabulary tests teachers always pointed out that the high scores were not an indication of intelligence.When I became an adult I realized they must have been the ones feeling a bit less intelligent. … But guess what? Knowing several languages has helped me with academics, broadened my horizons and enabled me to experience more and empathize with more people on our planet. It also helped me be the first in my family to graduate from university. I have carved out a successful life in spite of rather than because of the so-called teachers I had in elementary school.
Cathee R., Washington, D.C.
After decades, I finally realized the value of my native tongue
In the spring of 1990, my family and I immigrated from a former Soviet Union state now known as Belarus. Some of my most memorable moments were translating for my parents and getting frustrated that they were not understanding something simple. In those formative years, I wished they understood everything and not need my siblings and I to translate. It was not until I visited my birth country 18 years later as a 20-year-old that I truly appreciated the ability to communicate with my grandmother and family in Belarus. At that moment, I promised myself that my children would learn the native tongue my parents taught me and the culture that is in their blood.
Nadezhda Ayala, San Antonio, Texas
I speak to my parents in Tamil — out of respect
I am a Gen Xer and the son of immigrants from India. When I speak to my parents, I speak to them in Tamil. I do this even though they are professional, and also speak and understand English. I do this as a sign of respect. When I was younger, out in public with my parents, I would speak Tamil with them, but when I would speak to anyone else, I would switch and speak English.
In school, I would address my teachers in English. When my parents were with me, I would speak Tamil to them, in front of my teachers. Some of my teachers accepted it, as they knew that my parents spoke English. Others were kind of put off by it (like it was something wrong). I even was once asked by my sixth-grade teacher long ago, why I (didn’t) speak English to my parents. I told the teacher, that I do it as a sign of respect and deference. That is a big thing in Asian-Indian culture. My parents are my elders. They deserve to be shown respect. That teacher tried to convince me otherwise, but I never wavered. I spoke to him, and others in English (and my parents did the same). But I always speak to my parents in Tamil.
Even to this day, as a 40-something American by birth, I still talk with my elderly parents in Tamil. I live in a household where my wife speaks Vietnamese (and English), and I speak English (and Tamil, and Spanish). We never have seen any issues with it. A few times here in Phoenix on the street, I have been told by passers-by that I should only speak English (they heard me speak Vietnamese to my wife). I politely told them in English to mind their own business. They walked off.
Rahul Iyer, Mesa, Arizona
I remember being embarrassed when I spoke Spanish
I first learned to speak Spanish as a child since I was raised in a household that spoke it almost exclusively. I later went to school and was surprisingly placed with children in a regular kindergarten class and not ESL (English as a second language). I quickly learned English, and it eventually replaced Spanish as my dominant language. I remember being embarrassed speaking Spanish in front of certain friends. When I finally got older, I realized the importance of continuing to learn my first language as a way of communicating more effectively with my family members and also as a way of keeping a connection to my heritage. Not only that, it opened up several professional opportunities for me. Now that I have my own children, they learned English first; however, they’ve all taken Spanish at school in order to try to communicate with family and learn of their heritage as well.
Mitchell Sosa, Houston
I feel for those who experience discrimination — and those raised by bigots
My experience is quite different. I’m native born of native-born parents, and my first language is English. But I spent years, beginning in seventh grade, learning other languages. At first I studied French because that was all that was offered. When I went to college, I added Spanish to my studies, so I majored in French and minored in Spanish. As I grew, I was fortunate to be exposed to people who spoke one language or the other and to visit countries where one or the other was spoken, including Europe, Mexico and Canada. I met many people from French-speaking countries in Africa. Now that I am elderly, I regard myself as a wealthy woman! I can build little bridges between myself and others. I can enjoy literature and current events — news, periodicals, television — from many cultures. My mind can stretch. I feel terrible for youngsters who experienced the discrimination described in this article. I also feel terrible for the children of the bigots — the youngsters who will never have their minds stretched, extended and improved in the unique way that happens when you communicate with another person in a language not your own. And to the kids being shunted aside because of their Spanish, I say you should be proud. You are clever and intelligent enough to be bilingual. You are smart, and I hope you will go far.
Anne Madison, Baltimore
I felt different from everyone else
I grew up in a Third World country and spoke two languages but no English. My father realized early on that learning to speak English would open doors for my sister and me. I was enrolled in an American school and was surrounded by students and teachers who did not understand me and whom I could not understand. It was extremely isolating and my fellow classmates picked on me. I was pulled out regularly from my class to attend ESL class, which only further enhanced that I was different from everyone else (and) which led to even greater isolation and bullying. Fast-forward to today nearly 40 years later, and I no longer speak one of my two native tongues because I forgot it. However, in confirmation of my father’s dream and prediction, I’m employed by a wonderful company where diversity and inclusion is celebrated.
Keli R., Tallahassee, Florida
Two languages helped my children be proud of who they are
My wife and I are from Zimbabwe and went to college in (what was) then West Germany. Our two daughters were born there. We were amazed at how easy it was for our daughters to be able to converse/communicate in two different languages. At home we only spoke to them in our mother language (Shona) and at kindergarten they spoke German. This helped them not only to maintain their identity as Zimbabweans but also to be proud of who they are.
M.N., Harare, Zimbabwe
My parents tried to protect me with English
I am Hispanic and only speak English. My parents were migrant workers who worked in the beet fields of Minnesota as children. My father was born in Texas, and my mother was born in Oklahoma. They eventually moved and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. As children, my brother, sister and I were never taught Spanish. I was told that my mother and father were hit on their hands with a ruler in school if they ever spoke Spanish in class. They decided that they did not want their children to face that type of discipline and did not teach us Spanish.
We were truly a minority in Minnesota, and I always felt ashamed of my culture and heritage, so it was something that I did not embrace nor learn about. I remember as a young girl I hated my dark skin and thick black hair. I always wanted to be beautiful, which would call for white skin and blond hair. I grew up in an all-black neighborhood and went to all-white Catholic schools, where I was called the N-word and always felt less than. I felt more comfortable with my black friends and felt real shame with Hispanics.
It has been quite a journey to see within my lifetime a real shift in pride and richness in the Latino culture. I felt like such an outsider, but I no longer feel that shame. My birth certificate lists me as white. I think in the 1950s when I was born, you had a choice of black or white. I wish I would have been taught as a child about my heritage with pride and had been taught to speak Spanish, but I do understand why my parents refused to teach us in their efforts to protect us.
Vivian R., Monterey, California
I still dream in Italian sometimes
I lived in Naples, Italy, for 21 years while working for the Department of Defense. I have Italian heritage, and I took the time to learn the Italian language while I lived there. I still dream in Italian from time to time. I also spoke Spanish prior to moving to Italy, and I want to relearn Spanish as well. Many of my European friends are bilingual or multilingual, and I believe that speaking more than one language is something to be proud of.
Henry Woodruff, Durango, Colorado
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As a total gringa, I struggled to learn Spanish in an all-white small town in southern Illinois. Even though I wasn’t the smartest child, I knew that the language would carry me out of that small town and into the wider world. I was right….Working with kids straight out of Mexico helped me gain fluency, as did going on summer-long study tours, staying in local homes and taking classes. I learned about worlds very unlike my own and opened up new friendships and opportunities I’d never have had otherwise. I now have friends all over the world, and at 63 I am still studying. I recently earned my TESOL/ESL degree and plan to keep traveling and learning. My story isn’t all that interesting, but it underscores what I wish more of my fellow landlocked friends would realize — the world is a fascinating place with so much to offer. Speaking another language, even not all that well, is good for the brain and soul.