I Get Weird Looks When I Speak Spanish Fluently, But I Love Being Bilingual

From birth, I was raised to speak both English and Spanish, even though I'm not Latina.
Publish date:
April 11, 2016
bilingual, languages, spanish

With a name like Farish, people tend to ask where I'm from a lot. Though my name means angel in Arabic and son of Fergus in Gaelic, I'm a sixth-generation Texan with German and Irish blood. Oh, and did I mention I speak fluent Spanish?

My grandfather worked for the State Department and moved his family from country to country. My mom grew up in a wide variety of places, from tiny East Texas towns to Bolivia to Ireland, and finally oh-so-exotic Washington, D.C. She grew up speaking Spanish once her family moved to Bolivia, and she wanted bilingualism to have the same profound impact on her children that it had on her upbringing.

My mom made sure that my brother and I were exposed to dual-language environments from a very young age. She recounts stories of two-year-old me saying "Más? Más?" in order to obtain whatever food I was craving in that instance. From birth, we were raised to speak Spanish and English in the home, in public, and at school.

In fact, I was convinced that I was Latina until I entered kindergarten at my parochial school in Dallas. My classmates were confused when Dia de Los Muertos arrived that November and I asked them, "So who's on your altar?" I even dressed as Frida Kahlo for Halloween in second grade. My family set me straight after a while with a sorry-but-you're-white intervention, but I have always felt culturally connected to the Hispanic community.

When people hear me open my mouth to converse in Español, suddenly my identity doesn't add up because of my pale skin, red hair, and blue eyes. Knowing a second language has benefited me infinitely in school and in daily interactions, but my experiences as the only Spanish-speaking white girl in the room have been remarkable. In some instances, others have taken issue with the fact that I have zero ancestral links to the Latino world yet demonstrate fluency in Castellano (Castilian, the European dialect of Spanish).

Yes, I am a Euro-brat, but it's vitally important for Americans to learn to speak a second language. Bilingualism has its obvious academic benefits, but you don't have to be a UN delegate to make use of a second or even third language in your daily life. Speaking multiple languages bridges cultural gaps and bears significant cognitive benefits in addition its scholastic weight.

The Dana Foundation contends that bilingual people are especially skilled when it comes to conflict management in mental processes. Because bilingual people continuously translate communicated messages from language to language, they fine-tune their inhibitory control, which is "the ability to ignore competing perceptual information and focus on the relevant aspects of the input." Bilingual people exhibit stronger cognitive control when performing tasks that require inhibitory control. Additionally, bilingualism has been said to ward off mental decline by keeping the brain spry and on its toes.

Bilinguals benefit from speaking multiple languages not only if they began learning at birth. Late bloomers who crave additional language skills can also get in on the action, too. Dr. Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook write that "the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren't exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life."

Bilingualism has come in handy in the classroom, but its role is more important in interpersonal connections. I traveled to Guatemala in the summer of 2013 with Women for Orphans Worldwide, a branch of Orphan Outreach, to perform mission work at four or five orphanages there. We painted murals and made much-needed structural repairs at Casa Hogar mi Pequeño Refugio (Little House of Refuge, fondly called "The House that Love Built") in Xela, where the orphans are typically groups of siblings. My mother and I were the only Spanish-speakers who traveled with this mission group.

We were called upon to substitute-teach for a third grade class at the orphanage while the teacher had jury duty. The boys and girls in the class were amazed that two blancas were capable of communicating with them and teaching them their daily lessons. Had it not been for my knowledge of Spanish, I would not have been able to communicate with those children, a disgruntled young boy in particular. Lázaro was beyond distant when my mother and I entered the classroom; he made it clear he hated school and was not going to participate. By the end of the day, however, he danced, sang, and read with us with a smile on his face.

I experienced an even more touching interaction at Mi Especial Tesoro (My Special Treasure) in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. It's a home for survivors of human trafficking and various forms of abuse, including cases of sexual abuse and molestation. A 19-year-old girl approached me after she heard I was the only Spanish-speaker of the group. Before life-changing surgery performed by a surgeon sponsor of Orphan Outreach, she had lived with a cranial facial deformity since birth that impaired vision in one of her eyes and generally made life difficult. Her face lit up when we began communicating. She told me about her likes, dislikes, and hobbies, and the gap that would have otherwise separated us dissolved. We became just two young women connecting over lunch, rather than strangers kept apart by a looming language barrier.

I found out that she had met my mom earlier and expressed her excitement at our arrival. As the two conversed in Spanish, the girl revealed her hesitations about her appearance. My mom lovingly reassured her, "Tienes la cara de un angel, mijita." ("You have the face of an angel, sweetie.")

A friend of mine from high school told me her mom is Latina but that she doesn't know Spanish; she explained to me that her family did not encourage her to speak Spanish or even learn it. She said it was a time when immigrant families were discouraged from speaking anything but English. Even when I was a toddler, my paternal grandmother scolded my mother for speaking Spanish with me in public. She didn't understand my mom's upbringing and thought speaking Spanish was somehow beneath her.

Today, however, I am prouder than ever to speak the language of a culture that has always welcomed me with warmth and open arms. Regardless of the odd, even condescending looks I receive when I speak Spanish, I treasure my bilingualism and the benefits that have connected my mind and hearts with others over the years.