The Stigma of Being Bilingual
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Politics and Activism

The Stigma of Being Bilingual

What is it like to be a first-generation American in a country that is largely monolingual?

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The Stigma of Being Bilingual

Awestruck with the idea of being fluent in several languages, many Americans envy those who can converse, translate, and otherwise manipulate speech in order to communicate with people around the world. In fact, many economists have tried to place a value on such knowledge, estimating that a second language can increase one's wages by two percent each year. Studies also show that people who learn a second language tend to have a higher education, better cognitive development,and a smaller chance of developing dementia.

Yet there is a stigma in American society that tends to draw a parallel between having the ability to speak two or more languages and having a sense of privilege and entitlement. This stems from the fact that the number of Americans who can speak another language increases with an advancement in education, and education often correlates with affluence. However, "privilege" and "entitlement" suggest an ingrained belief that one deserves certain privileges and an inherent advantage over others: a belief that is not rightly justified.


My grandmother (second from the right) and her family friends in Kırklareli, Turkey

As a first-generation American, I was never raised to think that I was better than everyone else, because I never grew up thinking I was different from them; however, I have come to realize that my perception often differs from reality. Our society often classifies multicultural Americans as second-class citizens, prompting many millennials to dissociate from their parents' cultural heritage and abandon their native tongue in order to conform to American ideals. I was simply too naive and as a result, I fell victim to this stereotype threat.

My culture became a burden that ultimately influenced me to forget my Turkish background, because I found it easier to omit such a fundamental part of my life from conversations than to explain my upbringing. Even now, people are shocked to hear that I have always been able to speak Turkish, often asking how I could act so indifferent and say, "It was irrelevant," or, "It just never came up," but I have come to learn I am more selfish than indifferent: my culture has become sacred to me, and revealing it would result in giving others the power to affect my actuality. However, by attempting to conceal my background, I ended up losing that which I hold most dear.


My grandmother in her Turkish apartment in the early 1990's

Growing up, I had to talk to my grandmother in Turkish, because she knew a total of six English words ("thank you," "bye," "no," and "hot-dog"); however, when I returned home from college, I could not recall five Turkish words in order to communicate with the woman who helped raised me. I cannot describe the regret that has flooded over me after abandoning my imperfect Turkish, but I am starting to understand that it is a vital part of my life. Although I have not found a balance between fixing my broken Turkish and keeping my perception of my culture uninfluenced by others, I hope I do not permanently lose that which has ultimately shaped who I am today.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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