When I was 23 years old and living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I rented an apartment in an older home. The landlord of this apartment was a retiree in his 70’s named Ray.
I had NUMEROUS issues with this apartment, but loved the hardwood floors and tall windows, so I was willing to overlook the poor insulation and the fact that animals like opossums would crawl into the basement and somehow get into my ceilings and then punch holes in the ceiling with their claws. One night, I called Ray to let him know that an opossum had made an appearance again, and asked if he could come over RIGHT AWAY because I COULD SEE THIS OPOSSUM’S CLAWED HAND POKING THROUGH MY CEILING FAN.
Ray was a soft-spoken calm man. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right over with my ladder,” he said.
When he arrived, he began to get to work at patching the ceiling with silver duct tape, which he assured me was not a permanent fix. While he was doing that, my home phone rang, and I answered.
It was my mother-in-law, and my then-husband was not at home. I began to talk to her about how she was doing, when I noticed that Ray abruptly turned around, and almost lost his footing on the ladder.
“What are you doing?? And.. What is that?” he stammered.
I didn’t understand what he was talking about and was worried about his mental sanity.
“What are those words that you’re saying?” he asked.
“Um, those words are Spanish…I’m speaking Spanish. Like I’m speaking another language, Ray.”
“Oh. Wow. That’s wild,” he said.
My ex-husband was from the Dominican Republic and his mother did not speak English, so I was speaking with her in Spanish. I speak Spanish nearly everyday on my job as well, with some of my students and my students’ parents. So it didn’t feel strange or weird to me at all that I was speaking Spanish.
I realized in that moment that bilingualism sometimes shocks people.
And I’m not sure I understand why. Or maybe I do, but I just don’t want to think about the “why” behind it. Most of my students are bilingual. When they speak English, nobody is walking around saying to them, “OH MY GOSH! YOU SPEAK ENGLISH!” So it seems that people are shocked by bilingualism when it’s a non-Hispanic American speaking a foreign language.
This summer I was teaching summer school to general education students. Some of my English Language Learners were there, but most of the students were not dual language students. One of my non-Spanish speaking students forgot to take his Adderall that morning, so his mom brought it into him. I’ll call this student, Josh. I was walking Josh down to see his mom. I introduced myself to his mom as her son’s summer school teacher, but then I saw one of my Spanish speaking parents standing behind her, waiting to talk to me as well. I greeted her in Spanish and told her that I would chat with her about her question when I was done talking with Josh’s mother.
Josh’s mother overheard me speaking in Spanish and said, “Girl, you got some mad skills!” I thanked her for the compliment, but I also realized how unusual it was for her to see a non-Hispanic teacher speaking a foreign language.
It’s even weird for my students.
Last year, my sixth grade students asked me, “Are you white?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you Mexican?” they asked.
“No. I just studied Spanish and learned it.”
“But are you Hispanic?”
Bilingualism is “weird” in our culture because there are so few native English speakers who have chosen to learn a foreign language OR have been given the opportunity to learn a foreign language. Honestly, I would not be nearly as good of a Spanish speaker if I hadn’t attended Goshen College. At Goshen, going abroad for a semester is required in order to graduate. If you can’t go for whatever reason, then you have to take a semester’s worth of courses in “international education” at home. That’s because Goshen College has valued bilingualism and having a world perspective.
Although I received a great education from Goshen College, this is not an advertisement for Goshen College, and I’m not saying everyone should go there and blah blah blah. What I am saying is that I hope someday, mainly for my students, that it’s not such a weird phenomenon to see a native English speaker speaking a foreign language. And that my students can begin to see their bilingualism/biculturalism as a gift.
I definitely have felt the blessing that comes with being able to communicate with two cultures. I would love for a massive amount of people to experience that blessing as well.