Can Bilingualism Cause Alienation?

Posted by:  |  Category: Bicultural Vida, Daily Blog


We moved into a new house last May. I was so excited since I knew that there were a lot of children in the neighborhood.  There were boys the same ages as my sons living on either side of us. I envisioned my children having many fun afternoons playing with the other children in the community. Unfortunately, my visions of our new life in the neighborhood never came about.

Things started out well. The day that the moving truck officially brought all of our furniture into the house, our next-door neighbors brought us freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Initially, everyone was so friendly, and there were days when the kids played together. Unfortunately, as time went on, I noticed that the new neighbors were not quite as sociable as they once had been. Initially, I just assumed that it was because everyone was busy, but then I started to think that perhaps there was a bit more to the change in their demeanor.

My husband and I are very consistent, perhaps even a bit obsessive compulsive in our following of the OPOL strategy. I have never spoken to my sons in English and neither has my husband. Even when others who do not speak Spanish are around, I still continue to use the minority language with my kids. One day I noticed that when my sons and I would use Spanish, the facial expressions and body language of my neighbors changed. It dawned on me that perhaps they weren’t so friendly with our family anymore because of the different languages. Language was alienating us from our new friends.

Our previous neighbors and good friends were from Indonesia. We never had any issues with different languages being used when we were together. I would continue use Spanish, my husband would use German, and they would speak to each other in Indonesian while English would be our common language. No one ever seemed uncomfortable with not understanding the different conversations all of the time. We rather enjoyed learning new phrases in each other’s languages, but more importantly, we were supportive of the effort involved in raising bilingual children.

The more I think about the situation in our new neighborhood, I am starting to wonder if people who only speak English are uncomfortable around other languages. Perhaps already being bilingual makes us less fearful or suspicious of ones that we do not know. I know that for me, this is the case. When I hear a new language, I want to learn new words and phrases. It also makes me especially happy to hear other parents speaking to their children in another language, since I know that they are giving their child the gift of bilingualism.

I realize with my new neighbors it is actually going to take a bit of effort and understanding on my part in order to develop a relationship. At Christmas, we took our neighbors chocolate and had a nice time visiting with them while the children played.  I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the father in the one family is now even taking Spanish classes because his job requires him to go to Peru on a regular basis. His new need to learn Spanish emphasized for me the importance of raising bilingual children even in the face of many challenges. At the same time my neighbor has gained a deeper understanding of why my husband and I are so consistent in our efforts. Perhaps a friendship will develop after all.

{Photo by Mike Babiarz}

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