Why Bilingualism and Shame Don’t Belong Together

“I only understand it, I don’t speak it.”

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish very well.”

“I’m sorry I have a horrible accent.”

Have you heard statements like these before? Have you said one of these statements before? Have feelings like these made you not want to continue to work on your bilingualism?

Being ashamed of some aspect of your bilingualism will itself be a hindrance to your bilingualism. An advisor in my Master’s program at Stanford, Guadalupe Valdes, said it best during a class (a rough quote): “Those that say they can ‘only understand’ another language are missing the point. To understand multiple languages is not something to be diminished. If you can fully understand more than one language, that itself is a type of bilingualism.” The inclination to diminish one’s language abilities, or to feel any sort of shame with your bilingualism, stems from a belief that there is an ideal type of bilingual. In other words, what a person is implying when they say

I only understand it, I don’t speak it

is

I fall short of the ideal standard of bilingualism.

But what is this ideal standard? Is bilingualism truly only an end-state? What about the journey? What is successful bilingualism?

This boils down to one question: how do you define bilingual? In her article “Dimensions of bilingualism” in The bilingualism reader (2000, Vol. 3, pp. 3–25), Li Wei presents these challenging questions and then a definition of bilingual:

  • “Should bilingualism be measured by how fluent people are in two languages?
  • Should bilinguals be only those people who have equal competence in both languages?
  • Is language proficiency the only criterion for assessing bilingualism, or should the use of two languages also be considered?
  • Most people would define a bilingual as a person who can speak two languages. What about a person who can understand a second language perfectly but cannot speak it? What about a person who can speak a language but is not literate in it? What about an individual who cannot speak or understand speech in a second language but can read and write it? Should these categories of people be considered bilingual?
  • Should self-perception and self-categorisation be considered in defining who is a bilingual?
  • Are there different degrees of bilingualism that can vary over time and with circumstances? For instance, a person may learn a minority language as a child at home and then later acquire another, majority language in the community or at school. Over time, the second language may become the stronger or dominant language. If that person moves away from the neighbourhood or area where the minority language is spoken, or loses contact with those who speak it, he or she may lose fluency in the minority language. Should bilingualism therefore be a relative term?

The word ‘bilingual’ primarily describes someone with the possession of two languages. It can, however, also be taken to include the many people in the world who have varying degrees of proficiency in and interchangeably use three, four or even more languages.”

I love this definition of bilingual– a person in possession of two or more languages. Just as with wealth and how there are many ways to be rich in this world, so too there are ways to possess a language. In the same article, Li Wei presents a table of many different types of bilinguals:

Table 0.1 A variety of bilinguals From Wei, L. (2000). Dimensions of bilingualism. In L. Wei (Ed.), The bilingualism reader (Vol. 3, pp. 3–25). Routledge.

  • achieved bilingual same as late bilingual.
  • additive bilingual someone whose two languages combine in a complementary and enriching fashion.
  • ambilingual same as balanced bilingual.
  • ascendant bilingual someone whose ability to function in a second language is developing due to increased use.
  • ascribed bilingual same as early bilingual.
  • asymmetrical bilingual see receptive bilingual.
  • balanced bilingual someone whose mastery of two languages is roughly equivalent.
  • compound bilingual someone whose two languages are learnt at the same time, often in the same context.
  • consecutive bilingual same as successive bilingual.
  • co-ordinate bilingual someone whose two languages are learnt in distinctively separate contexts.
  • covert bilingual someone who conceals his or her knowledge of a given language due to an attitudinal disposition.
  • diagonal bilingual someone who is bilingual in a non-standard language or a dialect and an unrelated standard language.
  • dominant bilingual someone with greater proficiency in one of his or her languages and uses it significantly more than the other language(s).
  • dormant bilingual someone who has emigrated to a foreign country for a considerable period of time and has little opportunity to keep the first language actively in use.
  • early bilingual someone who has acquired two languages early in childhood.
  • equi lingual same as balanced bilingual.
  • functional bilingual someone who can operate in two languages with or without full fluency for the task in hand.
  • horizontal bilingual someone who is bilingual in two distinct languages which have a similar or equal status.
  • incipient bilingual someone at the early stages of bilingualism where one language is not fully developed.
  • late bilingual someone who has become a bilingual later than childhood.
  • maximal bilingual someone with near native control of two or more languages.
  • minimal bilingual someone with only a few words and phrases in a second language.
  • natural bilingual someone who has not undergone any specific training and who is often not in a position to translate or interpret with facility between two languages.
  • passive bilingual same as receptive bilingual.
  • primary bilingual same as natural bilingual.
  • productive bilingual someone who not only understands but also speaks and possibly writes in two or more languages.
  • receptive bilingual someone who understands a second language, in either its spoken or written form, or both, but does not necessarily speak or write it.
  • recessive bilingual someone who begins to feel some difficulty in either understanding or expressing him or herself with ease, due to lack of use.
  • secondary bilingual someone whose second language has been added to a first language via instruction.
  • semibilingual same as receptive bilingual.
  • semilingual someone with insufficient knowledge of either language.
  • simultaneous bilingual someone whose two languages are present from the onset of speech.
  • subordinate bilingual someone who exhibits interference in his or her language usage by reducing the patterns of the second language to those of the first.
  • subtractive bilingual someone whose second language is acquired at the expense of the aptitudes already acquired in the first language.
  • successive bilingual someone whose second language is added at some stage after the first has begun to develop.
  • symmetrical bilingual same as balanced bilingual.
  • vertical bilingual someone who is bilingual in a standard language and a distinct but related language or dialect.

There are many types of bilinguals! What a beautiful, freeing thought! This should be a huge encouragement to any bilingual who is raising bilingual children.

A leader I greatly admire says often: discouragement is a no-entry road.

Why?

Because no one likes doing things they aren’t good at. No one is motivated or inspired by discouragement. Discouragement is antithetical to effort and effort is required for growth. The Growth Mindset coined by Carol Dweck at Stanford teaches that how you think about your skills is critical to development and growth. Are skills primarily acquired by accident or are they the result of effort? The growth mindset says that more effort can lead to greater outcomes. And more effort is only possible in the absence of discouragement. Discouragement is a no-entry road. Don’t do it! Nothing good can come from discouragement.

My firm belief is that the worst thing that could happen to a bilingual person is that they allow discouragement to take root in their lives. Discouragement leads to shame. We must teach ourselves and the next generation not to diminish whatever type of bilingual we are because if we don’t, we are leaving room for discouragement and shame to take root. We must teach that any sort of possession of more than one language is valuable and a treasure. We must help them and ourselves never feel discouraged along the journey. How? Here are a few practical tips:

  • Don’t apologize for the deficiencies you see in your language abilities. If your kids see you do it, they will learn to do the same! Model a growth mindset.
  • Remember the goal. What is the end goal of your efforts? For me, it’s that my kids will develop a practice of thriving bilingualism for life. It’s a long-game, so what I want to teach them more than anything is to keep using and practicing their bilingualism whenever they’re able! This means showing them how it’s done. Do they see me, hear me, experience me living out my own bilingualism daily?
  • Share with your kids about all the different types of bilinguals outlined in the table above. Talk about bilingualism as a journey, not a destination. Make this a priority in your bilingual education. What type of bilingual are you now? What type do you aspire to be? Discuss with your children!
  • Encourage your kids! Encouragement is the backboard on which you can draw corrections. Try to encourage 99% of the time and correct just 1% of the time. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever correct– it just means encouragement (lots of it!) is essential! Encourage by saying things like:
  • “I love seeing you use your bilingualism!” -¡Me encanta verte usar tu bilingüismo!
  • “That was a great effort!” — ¡Fue un gran esfuerzo!
  • “Keep trying, you can do it!” -¡Sigue intentándolo, tú puedes!
  • “Practice leads to improvement!” -¡Con la práctica se mejora!
  • “Keep at it, it is worth the effort!” -¡Sigue así, vale la pena el esfuerzo!

How else are you encouraging your kids? Please share in the comments!

Remember that discouragement leads to not practicing which leads to no improvement which leads to more discouragement and shame! Don’t ever let discouragement take root! Discouragement is a no-entry road because it just leads to a dead end. Bilingualism and shame do not belong together.

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Founder and CEO of Lelu (www.lelu-usa.com). Writes about all things bilingualism. Mom of two, wife, first-gen grad of Princeton, Stanford GSB and GSE. @lelu_usa

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Ana Leyva

Ana Leyva

Founder and CEO of Lelu (www.lelu-usa.com). Writes about all things bilingualism. Mom of two, wife, first-gen grad of Princeton, Stanford GSB and GSE. @lelu_usa

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