When I first moved to the United States as a second grader, I knew three words of English: “one,” “two,” and “three.” By the time ninth grade rolled around, I knew three words of my native language, Bahasa Indonesia: “satu,” “dua,” and “tiga.”
As immigrants, my parents pushed my sister and me to learn English as quickly as possible, a well-intentioned endeavor that ended up fruitful: I no longer have an “accent” and I have successfully assimilated to the Anglo-American culture. But my assimilation came with a price; with my 27 words of Bahasa, I can’t communicate fluently in our native language with even my own parents, or any of my Indonesian friends.
While my first language was not blatantly suppressed, it was never valued. There were so many subliminal messages that made me believe for a long time that being bilingual, especially being bilingual in a language that “no one else” uses, was something to be ashamed of. My teachers never encouraged my parents or me to foster my first language; in fact, they pushed for more English in the home (which is actually detrimental to students’ academic development as studies show that a child can learn their second language better when they have a solid foundation in their first language). My language, like many other languages, is not offered in the SAT II or in AP classes. I never saw Bahasa represented in the media, in my school newsletters, or in the books that I read. It sent a message that my language didn’t matter; and I got it, loud and clear. My experience losing my language and culture is not singular—the term “recursive bilingualism” refers to those of us who have to re-learn our native languages, and it is especially common among first and second generation children.
These occurrences imply not just a hierarchy of the languages themselves, but also one organizing who is allowed to speak them. Wheaton College’s Student Government recently won in a fight to adopt Arabic language courses in the College, which I am extremely excited about. But, as mostly white, upper-middle class students are learning an “exotic” and “business-important” language, thousands of Arabic native speakers of Middle Eastern descent across the United States are being shunned for speaking their own language. We see this with Spanish speakers as well: while it is a requirement, a necessity, a “resume-builder” for white students, it is something to be only used at home for those of Latin descent. This double standard goes for numerous other languages like Thai or, my native language, Bahasa Indonesia—white students who speak them are lauded as culturally apt, while native speakers are given no extra praise and are even punished for speaking those exact same languages.
But the reality is that God made each of the languages we speak beautiful and perfect or else we wouldn’t have the gift of linguistic diversity. Certainly there are gaps in translation and in what different languages are able to convey – a pidgin language from Papua New Guinea will have a harder time explaining molecular astrophysics than English, but will have a better vocabulary with which to describe their local environment. This diversity doesn’t make either language any less important or valuable.
So if a white person speaks fluent Thai, they should be celebrated. But that also means celebrating the Pakistani who studies in Urdu, or the Ugandan that worships in Luganda. We’ve truly been given a wonderful gift and it is our time to appreciate it. There’s so much more to the language conversation and I hope you join in.