Being Bilingual


Image sourced from https://www.manchester.ac.uk

❝The limits of my language are the limits of my world❞ ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This week’s post is a continuation of a topic I discussed a few weeks ago [click here to read] and has been on my mind for a good few years. I have long been fascinated by languages – so much so that I dedicated a large portion of my final year of university studying the importance of languages to ethnic minorities. I find it incredible that we have such an abundance of language across the world and that language has a way of unlocking a part of one’s culture.

According to the British Council, it is estimated that more than half of the world is bilingual and it is well documented that being bilingual is now more of an advantage than it was 10 years ago. What captivates me about languages – whether they are European or non-European – is the way that they either deeply root us to a particular culture or give us a better understanding of that culture.

A few months ago, I was at a family gathering where everyone was speaking and telling jokes in Hindi and Panjabi. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a few of my younger cousins looked visibly uncomfortable and were sitting awkwardly; it was almost as though they felt like they didn’t fit in. I felt a pang of guilt and remember feeling a bit sad that they weren’t being included. For some reason, this incident has stayed in the back of my mind and got me thinking about the number of children who are of ethnic descent but do not know their community language. If having the ability to speak and understand your mother tongue is said to root you directly in your culture, where do they fit in?

“Annoyance has made me bilingual.” ~ Gayle Forman

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where my father and grandmother spoke my mother tongue to me as well as English. In the beginning, it was very confusing and I remember entering a long period of silence when I was at primary school because I kept mixing up both languages. Throughout my childhood, and as a young adult, I recognise the importance of speaking my mother tongue and how it connects me to my heritage. For example, many people of ethnic descent, believe that language is a crucial component of how they regard themselves. Many also believe that it reinforces a sense of pride in their roots, re-affirms a sense of belonging and creates a unique bond between them and others who also speak that language.

Language, as a concept, is what connects humans because it is the very essence of what communication is. The ability to ‘fit in’ and be part of a particular group is heavily based on the way that we communicate (whether that is orally or physically) with others. This is also a fundamental part of what it means to be a human being; we are social creatures and thrive when we are in the presence of those whom we can relate to. The phrase: “birds of a feather stick together” isn’t there because it makes you sound philosophical and unintentionally rhymes – it carries a lot of truth.

“Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ~ Frank Herbert

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of snide, back-handed comments that are made about South Asian children who grow up with little to no knowledge of their indigenous languages. They range from acid tongued comments berating their parents’ lifestyle and blaming them for the decline of a particular language to claims that British Asians are not proud of their ethnic heritages. On one hand they are labelled by other members of their ethnic group as ‘the family who don’t care about their roots’ or became ‘too Westernised’ and on the other hand, they eventually completely disengage from their ethnic group because they feel humiliated and like they do not belong.

It is all too easy to play the blame game and point fingers, but, it is not their fault that they grew up not learning their indigenous language or being proficient in it. We should not be pushing them away and/or berating them because of circumstances that they probably couldn’t control. Yes, I fully understand the argument for preserving languages (it is deeply important) but it should not come at the expense of isolating others and pushing them away from a heritage that is rightfully theirs. We should be taking a good long look at different ways that we decide what/how an individual chooses to identify/connect with their ethnic heritage and be pushing that forward instead of mocking those who did not grow up with the privilege of learning their mother tongue.

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4 thoughts on “Being Bilingual

  1. Interesting post. You don’t have to be privileged to be able to learn your mother tongue. There are evening/weekend classes and after school classes setup where children can take the opportunity to learn their mother tongue. I think the death of any persons dialect would present a very sad situation. Parents do indeed have a major hand to play, and that is encouraging and persisting with their children to attend classes to leant their mother tongue, it’s not easy trying to teach your kids this yourselves, as I found out. Here’s a simple example. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji (Sikh Holy Book) has been translated in numerous languages, such as French and Russian. However, with this translation it’s lost its very essence. If you really want to understand it the way it should be understood, then you have to understand Gurnukhi, for that you have learn Panjabi. So yes every effort should be made to learn the language and maybe not have the attribute that “we won’t need it in the future anyway”.

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  2. This is a really interesting topic Chayya. It’s strange for me personally, as like you I was brought up on two languages. My parents were quite strict on only speaking Punjabi at home when we were kids and this makes sense to me, as English will always become a part of your vernacular. As a child it’s so much easier to pick up multiple languages as it becomes second nature. Of course everyone has their different reasons for learning or not learning a language but I definitely think it’s something that you’re more appreciative for as you get older.

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    • Hi Gina,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my post.
      I agree, it’s a strange thing to experience as a child – I didn’t properly speak for months!
      But apparently, that’s part of the bilingual process in childhood, so it’s a relief to know that it wasn’t a weird phase.

      Yes, that’s precisely why my dad and grandma made a point of speaking Panjabi at home – either way I would pick up English.
      And definitely! I’ve started to learn Hebrew and it’s proving to be a bit of a challenge!
      It is absolutely something that you appreciate as you grow older – but it’s also so important to not isolate or cast out those who don’t speak their mother tongue. Identity, is a multi-faceted concept, and there are so many ways that people can rightfully claim ownership of their heritage.

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