The truth about being bilingual

In a recent news story, a first-base umpire threatened to eject players and a coach from a baseball game for speaking Spanish. His demand was not in response to any complaint being registered, rather, the English-speaking official’s objection ultimately was rooted in his own personal inability to understand what was being said.

The umpire’s protest underlies a common misconception about being bilingual. Many who speak only one language assume that a bilingual’s language use is the result of a conscious choice. Consequently, it’s often presumed that if a Spanish-English bilingual uses Spanish in the presence of someone who speaks only English, they must have intentionally chosen to do so in an effort to conceal something from the English speaker. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether you speak one language or several, your conversation varies with the circumstances. We change our speech when we’re making a formal request to our boss, shooting the breeze with a close friend, or making small talk with a new acquaintance. We factor in whom we’re addressing, where the conversation takes place, what we’re talking about and adjust our choice of words, pronunciation and sentence structure accordingly.

These modifications in our speech help us connect with our audience and achieve multiple communicative goals. While parents use short simple sentences to speak to small children to facilitate their understanding, they might be ridiculed if they attempted to
address another adult in the same fashion. Similarly, Mick Jagger’s colloquial lament of “I cain’t get no satisfaction” wouldn’t drive home his level of despair if expressed more formally as “I simply cannot get any satisfaction.”

Like a deck of cards, we use the various features language has to offer to win the hand we’re playing at the moment.

These verbal adjustments are part of our natural linguistic reflexes and are generally not performed on an overtly conscious level. Bilinguals, despite possessing an increased number of linguistic options, do not manage this broader range of skills any more consciously than do speakers of only one language.

Informal conversations are least likely to promote a conscious awareness of speech; the same goes for emotionally charged occasions like sporting events. When Spanish-English bilinguals are interacting with friends, family, neighbors, peers, and co-workers who share their language background, it’s common for Spanish to be used automatically to acknowledge these ties and connect on a personal level. It’s no surprise then, that the bilingual baseball players in question would instinctively shout words of praise and encouragement in Spanish to inspire their teammates’ actions and simultaneously underscore their team’s unity and solidarity.

Because language skills are employed in response to the speaker’s natural instincts regarding the conversational situation at hand, there’s no reason to contrive artificial restrictions on the use of language in such situations. In fact, in workplace settings, “English Only” policies have been largely established to be discriminatory by the 10th Circuit Court unless they meet strict standards set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Instead of restricting language use, there’s every reason to encourage the development of skills in multiple languages in different contexts to promote the maturity of multiple language abilities. Research over the last 50 years has touted the multiple benefits bilingualism has to offer. Bilingual skills enhance one’s cognitive processing, promote problem solving abilities and self-awareness, and are tied to greater levels of academic achievement.

Both sports and bilingualism provide skills that foster success and bring communities together. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose from encouraging the development of both.

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