Commentary: Putting a name to the barrier of guilt and shame


Chloe Docto

For first generation Americans, language can pose itself to be barrier rather than a beneficial device.

  ‘Nakakaintindi ba siya ng Tagalog’, meaning ‘does she understand Tagalog’, was a question that I could never respond back to. 

   Until last year, I had no idea there was a name for my unidentifiable language circumstances. 

   Receptive bilingualism.

   As a first-generation American, my parents immigrated to America from the Philippines in 2004, and the first language in my household was Tagalog.

   Growing up my parents weren’t strict about my siblings and I being fluent in Tagalog.  

   Nevertheless, my parents continued to speak to my siblings and I in Tagalog as an effort to preserve our heritage and ethnic identity as Filipino individuals. 

   In the research paper on “Preserving Immigrants Native Language and Cultural Identity in Multilingual and Multicultural Societies”, the usage of the native language in the household is stated to enhance ethnic identity development.

   “Immigrants’ native language proficiency plays a positive role in their ethnic identity since their heritage language is closely linked to their parents; heritage culture immigrants’ socialization practices with ethnic friends have strong impact on their ethnic identity,” Norma Nawaf Yousef Alzayed, an assistant professor at Middle East University, wrote in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.

    My parents personally were focused on maintaining my understanding of our native language, at the very least,  through comprehension.

    There are other parents who implement adamant rules regarding the maintenance of their native language.

    Tama, a participant in a case study on raising bilingual and trilingual children, and her husband took on the responsibility of teaching Japanese to her three children by strictly only speaking Japanese at home. 

    Times have changed, and bilingualism has taken a turn from being regarded as a hindrance which could interfere with an individual’s first language, to bringing an enriching and valuable advantage to success. 

   Depending on the culture and a household’s decision, there exists a range of native language retention – from the prioritization of speaking English to a definite bilingual fluency in both first and second languages.

   The course of action parents take is influenced by a multitude of factors and priorities.

  For instance, “The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society”, details the discrimination and xenophobia faced due to linguistic profiling, or the analysis or characterization of an individual based on a person’s speech or writing.

   John Baugh, American linguist, wrote in “The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society”, “Linguistic profiling can have profound and devastating consequences for individuals whose speech may be the object of considerable misunderstanding, if not overt discrimination.”

   Language, and even accents play extensive roles in immigrant discrimination and prejudice as they perpetuate immigrant stereotypes like lesser educations or poor work ethics.

  Upon beginning school, my parents weren’t worried about stereotypes, as they were confident in my ability to pick up English at school while still preserving my Tagalog. Before entering pre-school I was on the way to becoming fluent in Tagalog. 

   But when I entered school, my ability to speak Tagalog gradually faded, leaving me solely with the ability to understand. 

   As a result of being unable to speak my family’s mother tongue, I was left with a residual feeling of detachment from my culture and family members. 

      Receptive bilingualism, according to the Department of Education in the state of California, is the case in which an individual who has native fluency in their first language can fully understand or has greater ability to understand rather than articulate a secondary language, but are not able to fluently speak the secondary language. 

       Personally, I feel lucky that my parents never guilted me about being unable to speak Tagalog, but around extended family and family friends, my feeling of estrangement grew stronger.

   As I grew older and reconnected with distant family, there was a notable decrease in the interaction they engaged in with me. 

    My older brother grew up in the Philippines and retained fluency, and the way he would interact with my relatives seemed unattainable with my inability to converse with them. 

    I find myself unintentionally being isolated, whether in the corner of a family function or sticking strictly with my immediate family. 

     All I can do is watch like an outsider. 

     I feel eerily like a ghost, present but incapable of answering. 

     The sense of alienation always leads me back to critical self-reflection, considering my ability to uphold cultural traditions, to communicate with distant family, and the reputation of my family in front of others.

   I fear the image of being perceived as ‘white-washed’, ‘philistine’, or ‘out of touch with my culture’. 

    According to the case study on raising bilingual and trilingual children, immigrant families feel knowledge of language cannot be separated from knowledge of its culture.  

     In discussions with others regarding how many languages they could speak or when checking language boxes on an application, I’ve always been struck with a feeling of confusion between being monolingual or bilingual.

    I feel stuck in a language purgatory. 

    Talking to my mom, I would always argue that I could ‘speak’ two languages, and she always pointed to the fact that I couldn’t coherently hold a conversation in Tagalog. 

   Constantly, guilt overrides me when considering all of the missed opportunities I could have had access to if I could only label myself as bilingual. 

   Despite the impediments which accompany a lack of fluency, I’m proud to be able to call myself a receptive bilingualist. 

    Even if I may only be able to understand Tagalog, the cultural awareness which comprehension provides to me outweighs any negative connotations. 

    I hope in the future I can put a pin in my language status confusion. 

   Now I can confidently respond by saying, ‘Receptive bilingualist ako. Medyo mahirap mag salita para sakin pero nakaka intdindi ako’. I’m a receptive bilingualist, it’s a bit difficult for me to speak, but I can understand’.