Being Multilingual: Language as a Bridge Builder
Approximately 6,500 languages are spoken around the world and, according to The Washington Post, nearly half of the world is bilingual. Yet, those who identify as bilingual and multilingual are often greeted with more challenges in the face of communication, rather than praise.
As advocates and allies, it is important to look at how we can create inclusive measures for people who are multilingual. Through collaboration, patience and the willingness to understand, we can reimagine different languages not as a barrier, but a bridge builder.
Colleagues across our Chicago office share their personal experiences as multilingual speakers and how exposure to different languages can make us better communicators and expand our larger, global perspectives.
I was born and raised in Thailand speaking Thai, so English is my second language. My English lessons began when I was in pre-school. It started by learning the English alphabet and simple vocabulary.
Growing up, my dad would purchase English encyclopedias, magazines and newspapers for my brother and me to read — or more so to look at – during that time. While I was too young to understand everything then, I was excited to see books that were written in a different language. The desire and curiosity I felt for the books written in English encouraged me to keep learning. Despite my concerns on whether my accent is too strong or if I will stumble on pronunciation, I take every new word and pronunciation I learn as an accomplishment.
While it comes with a unique set of challenges, being multilingual has opened countless doors to ample opportunities to meet people from all over the world and discover my passion for a career in global communications. I would not have made it this far without support from people who are willing to understand me, even when there were words I cannot pronounce. I am grateful for these opportunities and look forward to creating similar opportunities for others.
Kara Freeland, senior account executive
I grew up as my mother’s voice. From grocery stores, gas stations, and phone calls, I was often the one speaking on behalf of my mother. She, who I looked up to as my childhood hero, just wasn’t comfortable speaking in English. Both my parents immigrated from China to California before I was born, so I was raised speaking their familial language, while learning to speak English with my friends and classmates.
At home I speak Cantonese, a spoken language that exists in the southern regions of China. My parents also sent me to Chinese School every weekend, where I learned Mandarin, the main native language of China.
As the honorary interpreter for my parents, I realized at a young age how important connotation can be in conversation. Sometimes the direct translation of a word doesn’t epitomize the meaning, leaving little room for error and the potential to easily steer a conversation the wrong direction.
Understanding the variety of connotations also allowed me to see the differences between my parents’ perspective of the world as Chinese immigrants and my perspective, an English-speaking, first-generation American citizen. Over time, my interest in communications and public relations stemmed from my bilingual experience. It broadened my point of view and showed me the impact language has on how one speaks, listens and believes.
Miranda Xie, assistant account executive
As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up speaking, learning and listening to many different Indian languages at home. While we speak Konkani, pop culture and my parents’ childhoods in Mumbai allowed us to learn Hindi as well. This multilingual foundation was set up even before I started school, with my parents switching from Konkani and Hindi to English in front of me.
As I grew up, however, I faced second-hand embarrassment of my background and, like most first-generation kids, did the most to make sure I fit in with the rest of the kids at school. This thought process bled into the way I saw my parents, as I often found myself embarrassed whenever they would mispronounce something while ordering food or shying away from their heavy accents in public. I would frequently correct them, looking down on the fact that they were unable to speak what I saw as basic English. I never stopped to think about how incredible it is that my parents, my hardworking, immigrant parents, were able to speak so many different languages, and how my closed perspective contributed to their struggle for acceptance.
Now as I reflect on my experience, growing up as a multilingual, first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants has taught me to live life with an open mind. Appreciating cultures and different languages is important today more than ever as we have become so interconnected both professionally and across our personal lives. While it may not seem like a big deal for those of us who have grown up in America, inherently balancing different cultures and knowing and understanding multiple languages is something to be proud of and should be celebrated.
When you encounter someone who didn’t grow up with English as a first language, I encourage you to take a step back and approach them with understanding, instead of jumping at the chance to correct them or target their mispronunciations with judgement. Take the time to appreciate their efforts and who they are as people.
Shruthika Kamat, assistant account executive
I was born in Guam and raised in America. I moved to the U.S. when I was almost six years old and consider English to be my first language. My family speaks Ilocano, a dialect of the Philippines, but the main dialect is Tagalog.
When I first moved to the U.S., I was self-conscious about the way I spoke. Sometimes an English word is not pronounced the same when you have a Filipino accent or grow up speaking a dialect of the Philippines. For example, instead of saying futon in our house, it was pronounced “puton.” I constantly compared myself to my peers because I felt like I didn’t speak or write as well as them. I would wait for someone pronounce a word first before I would say it, or dread being called on in class to read aloud because I was afraid of being laughed at.
To this day, I am still conscious about the way I pronounce things and how they appear on paper. As I grew in my career, I remember being so nervous to write my first press release, my first blog post for a company and even my first professional email. At first, it was discouraging to get edits because my insecurities of growing up mispronouncing my words or not saying the right word would come flooding back.
Although these feelings resurface occasionally, growing up with exposure to multiple languages has allowed me to connect more with my culture and with my parents. Being multilingual does not mean you are less than, it means you are a better listener, speaker and advocate.
Constructive feedback helps us grow and allows us to keep improving in our craft, though we should also be conscious of the way we deliver this feedback. First, we should take the time to learn about our peers and know that sometimes tenses or pronouns are different in another language. Also, consider asking the person what they meant or to clarify what they were trying to say instead of assuming. By doing so, we can work together on creating spaces for everyone to bring their full selves to work.
Valerie Del Campo, assistant account executive