Immigration and the Stigma of Bilingualism

Contrary to what one may think, being bilingual is not a privilege reserved for the few. What’s more, according to official data, there are more bilingual than monolingual persons in the world. Among the causes of bilingualism, we can identify being a part of or having once been a part of a migratory process, whether voluntarily or not. The latter category applies to a considerable extent to the children of immigrants.

When immigration is motivated by a concerted effort to seek a brighter future or even merely survival, the place of origin can end up becoming a burden that the children of immigrants, whether they’re born at destination or arrive as babies along with their parents, have to bear if the condition of being from whatever place that may be could turn into an obstacle to their effective integration in the new society.

Among the many hurdles to be overcome when leaving one’s native land, the language barrier is usually in the mix. It’s not just a matter of learning the new language, which may include a new writing system and a different direction of reading-writing (left to right, or vice versa), but also of managing the problem that arises from using the immigrant’s mother tongue.

At first glance, for immigrants, their mother tongue may provide a kind of support structure and familiarity when faced with the onslaught of unknown visual and audio stimuli. Nonetheless, for their children, the parents’ language may prove to be an undesired stigma, especially if the country where that language is spoken is not held in high esteem but rather looked down on in the country of destination.

According to certain sociolinguists, the first and second generations of immigrants tend to want to identify themselves as closely as possible with the people and culture of the majority language group. They struggle to free themselves from the language they have brought from abroad. In the United States, for example, Spanish speakers sometimes wish to be monolingual and only speak English in order to forget about the identity of their country of origin and be like any other monolingual person.

It turns out that our identity and the language we speak are strongly linked. Therefore, when preserving the cultural identity that immigrants wish to bestow upon their children does not contribute to their integration into the receiving society, bilingualism can end up being more of a cross to bear than an advantage.