I’m probably the youngest kid ever to be kicked out of first grade. Born in Seattle to immigrant parents, I was kicked out one school day in 1952 for not being able to speak English. My parents wanted me to be bilingual in Cantonese and English, but that was not to be. To get me back in school, they had to promise never to speak Chinese in our presence. They kept their promise and I ended up with fractured Cantonese.
My father was born in Italy and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 26 years old. He didn't speak a word of English. He tried to teach me Italian when I was a child. I remember fighting with him and exclaiming, “I’m American! I don’t need to learn Italian!” That is the greatest regret I have in life.
Renata S. Geraldo
Portuguese is my core. It has shaped the way I love, the way I see people and the way I see myself. Thanks to the intensity of the Portuguese language, I know how to read people, which is essential in my field of journalism. Thanks to its creativity, I am becoming the writer I aspire to be. Thanks to its substance, I am able to have discussions with people regardless of perfect grammar for comprehension. Portuguese has shaped me entirely.
I am a Salvadoran native. I came to the U.S. when I was 13 years old. Now I have a growing family with my beautiful Uzbek wife. Our firstborn is a 17-month old boy and we have a baby girl on the way. Your story inspired us to talk to our children in our native languages. If we manage to stick to it, our children will be fluent in Spanish, Uzbek, Russian and English.
Both my parents were holocaust survivors from Poland. The first language I spoke at home was Yiddish. Speaking Yiddish must have served as a way for me to connect to the family I would never meet as they had all been killed. More than my religious upbringing, speaking Yiddish and being the child of holocaust survivors defined me.
In high school I was afraid of being seen as an outsider so I decided that I no longer wanted to speak Armenian. After much arguing, my parents agreed to speak English to me in public, though my father, a native New Yorker, began to speak it with a strong Armenian accent to embarrass me. I didn't budge but I'm thankful that they mostly respected my strong will. My husband was also raised bilingual — in Italy with an Italian father and an English mother. The family we have created together is tight-knit, possibly because of the languages. Armenian gives me a strong connection to the children, while my husband has his own strong connection to them in Italian.
Ramona Ramirez Higgins
I can't speak Spanish even though I identify as Chicana. My father's side is Mexican and my mom's side is Jewish. I have always felt so separate from my Mexican heritage. It is agonizing for me to go to Mexico on vacation and not be able to communicate with people I physically resemble. I don't feel Mexican enough or like I belong to Mexican American culture even though I identify with so much of it. In classes full of Jennys and Ryans god forbid someone ask me what my middle name was — Tonantzin. Try wearing that name when you can’t speak Spanish.
I speak in Russian, Spanish and English with my niece and nephew who live with me. I sing in Portuguese a Brazilian pagode (music jam session), read in Italian, listen to music in Spanish, and sometimes speak in French to friends. My brain gets bored in one language and even when thinking to myself, I may switch from one language to another.
My mother speaks only Spanish to me and it has made me feel so connected to my Colombian side even though no one would know I am Hispanic by looking at me. Since it was my first language I feel connected and nostalgic when I hear it and speak it. It is embedded in every aspect of my life — at work, at home, in music. Speaking Spanish means a direct connection to my mother and my heritage. It makes me feel whole and connects me to a part of myself I could never express in English.
My birthplace is Borneo Island in Malaysia. It is a cultural melting pot, where native Dayaks, Ibans, Malays, Chinese, blend with Indians and other minorities. We share the same space and same school. We play sports and hang out together. We speak Hokkien to order our food. At home, I speak my mother language Hakka to my family. I speak Mandarin to some relatives. Whenever there are words my siblings and I cannot express in our mother tongue we turn to Malay, English or another language. There are no barriers.
It is so much fun to speak Spanish with my family. Puerto Rican Spanish has a lot of humor and many expressions that make me laugh and bring up memories of family members now deceased.
My father is from Argentina and when speaking to cousins we exchange a lot of phrases that make texts and calls even more fun. We enjoy each other's phrasing and accents and the laughter and differences bring us closer to each other.
Growing up in parochial schools, the nuns would limit us to speaking English. I was embarrassed growing up with parents that spoke broken English. I had to read legal disclosures, call doctors and try to translate material that I was too young to grasp. When we visited family in Mexico, my cousins would often ridicule me for not speaking proper Spanish. My comeback was that at least I could speak more than one language. My husband jokes that I speak neither English or Spanish very well because I often mix up a saying from one language with the other. I love being bilingual and being able to navigate two cultures. It took me many years to give myself permission to embrace that. I once heard that speaking Spanish in L.A. is like having a magical power and I couldn't agree more.
I did not do well in my two years of high school Spanish. I never tried to learn another language. For the last 13 years I worked for a company that did business around the world. All of my clients spoke English and I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge in their native tongues. During breaks, I realized how left out I was by not being able to understand the conversations around me. I was able to learn “Where is the toilet?” and “Do you speak English?” That and ordering coffee was at the outer limits of my abilities.
I'm a güero who began studying and learning Spanish in elementary school. I now speak Spanish with at least one person a day to maintain my passable Spanish. When I had children, two blond, blue-eyed güeras, I made sure they learned Spanish, too. They both, now 28 and 31, speak very good Spanish.
I volunteered in Peru, Nicaragua and El Salvador and learned some Spanish to better serve my patients. I have had patients discourage their children from speaking Spanish because they had been told they were not American if they spoke Spanish. I told them it wasn't true. It was a narrow definition used by some people. Languages open doors. America is about so much more than just language. It is about possibility, community, and dreams.
Multilingualism is a normal thing where I live in southern Nigeria. English is our country's official language while couples often marry across tribes. We also learn French in school so most people grow up speaking four languages without batting an eyelid.
Credits: Production by Priya Krishnakumar and Steve Saldivar