When and where I grew up, mostly where, knowing more than one language was not a good thing. It made you stand out. Kids looked at you funny and made fun of you as if you were someone from outer space. In a small rural town in Southern Virginia, being a polyglot was just not a good thing. I tried to hide my hidden skill as many superheroes may hide their powers from the world initially, with embarrassment and shame.
This all started to change for me when my parents booked us a trip to Spain with a group of mostly young kids around 15 years old. I was 12 or 13 at the time. Back then, a two-year age difference, especially in this age group, was major. Fifteen-year-old teens did not want to hang out with a 13-year-old. My sister was right in that age range, so she was able to fit right in.
My sister and I were the only kids on the tour who spoke Spanish; and there were kids from all over the US. It was on this trip that I started to see my ability to speak another language as a kind of power, or something good. It turns out that being able to communicate — ordering food, getting directions, and even tricking a doorman into allowing a group of teenagers into a night club — was pretty cool. As others pulled out their language booklets (no smartphones or translation apps back them), I was speaking fluently to the locals in my rather Americanized version of Latin American Spanish.
I quickly grabbed the attention of the entire group and became the go-to translator for the younger crowd, especially for things that they did not want to ask the tour guide. This trip, with a group of young Americans in Spain, changed the course of my life. I no longer hid my language, or heritage for that matter, and I started to see that these types of abilities in a broader context were not only good but considered to be a rare and very desirable attribute. Turns out, being multilingual may carry a host of other benefits, including increased brain performance in terms of focus, creativity, and cognitive skills.
It was like I was a secret spy who knew how to decode something nobody in my town could. Even the Spanish teachers (some who really spoke no Spanish) would ask me questions. Sure, every once and a while some kid would try to put me down with a racial slur or a derogatory remark. But it was much easier to brush off when most of the class, the girls, and the faculty were impressed with an ability I really did very little to obtain.
Fast-forward many, many years, living in Europe and Latin America for a decent amount of time, knowing only two languages was kind of lame. You would get in a taxi in Europe and the driver could speak 5 languages without even flinching. It was like I landed in a place where my superpower was not so super. In fact, I would actually be looked down upon for being so provincial and only knowing two languages. It was actually a bit refreshing, in a weird way, to know that all those worries years ago about not fitting in were wasted thoughts. In actuality, language was really a sign of the educated, the cultured, and the open-minded.
Today, it seems like there is a movement to go back to a time where being a foreigner or being able to speak a different language is bad again. This “in America you need to speak only English” mentality reminds me of times I thought were long gone. The reality for me is that knowing two languages has opened up new worlds for me in terms of human interaction, cultural awareness, vast business opportunities, and just an expanded way of thinking.