Coming to the States, language became one of my biggest concerns. The need to speak English when all I could stutter were mangled words that felt foreign on my tongue. 

There was the fear of losing my Spanish. The fear of my one-year-old sister only learning to speak English. The fear that I would never be able to connect with friends or partners since we didn’t speak the same languages. And, as time went on, the fear that my family now depended on me for everything: talking with the bank, ordering food at a restaurant, signing the lease agreement, and so much more… things a fourteen-year-old knew nothing about.

English was the goal… talking Spanish didn’t feel like an advantage back then.

Even now, five years later, it doesn’t quite feel advantageous most of the time. English has always been the means of being able to hold my own against other people and being able to “get a seat at the table.”

Now, however, English and Spanish do feel like a part of me. 

The space between English and a different home language

Learning English and the meaning of words like homesickness, safety, colored, and articulate meant I also wanted to hold on to words like orgullo, apapachar, consentir, and jarana. Each of these expressions holds a cultural connotation that isn’t necessarily translated by their counterpart. Homesickness doesn’t have just one word in Spanish to shift into, it is a concept completely related to immigration. Colored isn’t Coloreado. And Apapchar isn’t just to hold, it means to hug someone with your soul. These are expressions that in some ways you can only feel if you speak and understand the culture of the language they belong to

Learning English meant that at home, I had started using expressions like cringe, annoying, damn, and body autonomy much to the chagrin of my overly-affectionate Latino family. It meant that my sister’s first words started coming in Spanglish. Phrases like “Cupito” (a combination of “cup” in English and the “ito/ita” at the end of a noun in Spanish that is used to signify the object as“tiny” or “teensy”), or “quiero ver una movie” became part of every day.

These changes might not seem like much to some, and they happened so gradually that we barely noticed until Spanglish started becoming an issue for us. Or, more like: it became a problem for the non-English speakers at our home. 

Bilingual conflict in a monolingual family

My grandparents and stepdad couldn’t understand my sister when she shifted to a full retelling of her day in English, or when she asked for something in English and didn’t know how to ask for it in Spanish since it was something school-related. 

My mom and I tried to translate as best we could, but there were even times we couldn’t understand what my sister needed, leaving her frustrated and annoyed. These instances also left my stepdad feeling like an outsider in his own home and frustrated at his slow learning process of the language.

He started yelling, demanding we only speak Spanish at home and getting mad whenever my sister or I spoke in English. It hurt, and it was very difficult for my sister to fully stop speaking English. After all, she had been learning Spanish only from us, and until she asked, the translation for words such as spelling bee, homecoming dance, and rollie pollie did not exist in her vocabulary.

More than that, I didn’t know how to explain to my stepdad that, as Rosina Lippi-Green talks about in her book “English with an Accent,” language is as alive – through its speakers. It grows. It evolves. It adapts to the needs of each speaker. It is through geographical change of speakers, multilingualism, cultural contexts, race, and gender that we develop and breathe life into the languages we speak.

We speak the way we do because of our experiences and the identities we want others to recognize in us. This has led to the creation of Chicano English, African American English, Native American English, Spanglish, and many other dialects. In addition to dialects, in the past, this is how entirely new languages developed.

So, why is language important?

In her book, Rosina Lippi-Green explains, “Language is the binding that holds our whole book of life together: your language, and more specifically, your dialect, decides where your page is placed.”

And the thing is… she’s not wrong. Language is more than a tool of communication. No matter the form (signed, written, or spoken), language works as a presentation of self and the groups we belong to gender-wise, race-wise, ethnicity-wise, socioeconomic background-wise, and many other factors.

“For me, it’s always been really important to keep speaking Spanish and I always speak Spanish at home because I don’t want to lose that I think that’s such an important part of my life,” explained Ivonne Olivas, a journalism and public relations student at the University of Colorado Boulder. “As a journalist being able to speak with other people that aren’t just speaking English, and representing a community that isn’t represented a lot, has been really important. And it’s also a big part of my identity.”

We make choices about the way we speak to associate ourselves with the groups we feel like we belong to. Whenever I find someone who also speaks Spanish and English fluently, I’ll hold most of the conversation switching between languages, because that feels more natural than only Spanish or only English. 

The truth is, we make a thousand different decisions over our tone, our words, our slang (maybe we say hella instead of wicked or pop instead of soda) to present what identities are relevant to us… and the challenges that we face. 

What kind of challenges do multilingual speakers face?

I imagine you have heard it. The comments about “how well you speak English” after explaining you weren’t born in the U.S., or the accusation when the language of your homeland isn’t as fluent as others believe it should be. Noel Quiñones explained it better than I ever could in his poem “8 Confessions of my Tongue”. He speaks about the shame and guilt that comes with not speaking “the languages that crossed the sea.”

And Jamila Lyiscott talked about the anger of being mocked for switching between languages in her “3 Ways of Speaking” poem. She shares her outrage at being called articulate for speaking “better” than others expected – for someone from your race, gender, or ethnicity. 

Language discrimination has existed for very long, especially in a place like the U.S. where over 350 languages are spoken

In the words of linguistic professor Chase Raymond: “It is not about what is said, but the mouth it is coming from.”

Standard Language Ideology and Discrimination

Rosina Lippi-Green defines it as  “a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by dominant bloc institutions and which names as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class.” This idea serves to nullify different natural variations of language. Forms of bilingualism like Spanglish are discriminated against. Dialects and slang are deemed “improper.” 

These are known as prescriptive rules which vilify variations of language. In the case of English, many people have an idea of proper English which is known as Standard American English. An English with no accent, no variation, no slang, no grammatical mistakes.

According to advocates for Standard American English, this variety of English is accessible to everyone. Therefore, any person who doesn’t speak “proper English” is deemed lazy or uneducated. Even when these variants are caused by multiple factors: age, geographic region, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and many more. Too often, ideas expressed in any form “outside” the Standard Language Ideology are disregarded. The idea is disregarded and so is the speaker.

But, Standard American English is unachievable. It doesn’t exist.

Everyone possesses an accent. Everyone’s language is different. And we don’t speak the way we write. It is simply not possible, so there’s no way to speak “proper English.”

In this way, language provides a convenient excuse to discriminate against marginalized communities.

Standard Language Ideology denies how language naturally evolves

Language is always changing and evolving. Communities make languages change to fit their needs. English did not even have the word tsunami until it was needed to report a natural phenomenon in the news. Tsunami is originally a Japanese word.

Chicano English was born in communities that lost their Spanish due to fear when public schools around the U.S. would chastise the use of Spanish, ostracize Spanish speakers, and set up in place “English Only” policies. Chicano English is a form of resilience that people are rarely even aware of.

African American English has a similar history. Being born from a combination of English used by slaves in plantations and the English of those in the upper classes, they created a language out of “raped history” as Lyiscott explained in her own poem.

And Native American English was born from what is known as “Rez accents.” After the Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S. there was a whole generation terrified of speaking their own languages and younger generations purposefully tried to recover their history and culture by mixing these “lost languages” with the English they grew up speaking.

Language can shape or erase culture

“I think, you know, learning a language gives you a lot of confidence. It allows you to communicate with many more people in the world if you share that language. It gives you access to proper health care, to your legal rights, to your human rights. It builds relationships,” remarked Rai Farrelly, professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But, I’m also very critical and very aware that English is also a bit of a dominant language, and it has the potential to displace languages, to overrun people’s home languages.”

The above variations of languages were born as acts of resilience. As a refusal to erase certain identities/cultures while assimilating the values and parts of the dominant culture that are favorable and necessary. Language is a negotiation these people from diverse backgrounds have needed to come to terms with.

I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never be only Colombian or only American anymore.

I became an immigrant… with all it brings.

Colombian Spanish became my heritage and American culture became my daily life. 

“Ni de aqui, ni de alla”

Like Quiñones explained, there’s stereotypes that come from both parts of the spectrum of linguistic discrimination. I spoke about dominant narratives in the States, but we also have stereotypes from our counterparts in our homelands. In the case of Latinx culture, those who don’t speak Spanish are considered “not Latino enough,” not “loyal to their Latinidad,” a “no sabo kid,” and “white-washed.”

“For the most part, I think, in settings where English is predominantly used, sometimes I feel like people, because I speak Spanish, they use me as like the voice of everybody else in the community, and they’re like, oh, you’re Mexican and you speak Spanish, so you must agree with what every other Mexican person in the United States agrees with. That’s not true,” Olivas remarked. “And then I had a reverse situation when I went to Mexico to visit my family. Because I spoke English they saw me as like too white, I was like too Americanized even though I also speak Spanish. It’s a juggling act.”

And these stereotypes are perpetuated through phenomena like chiquitification where all Latinx cultures and dialects are grouped into a tidy and digestible package for the rest of the nation, just like we do with terms like Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Middle Eastern. It helps forget there are individuals within these groups and different aspects of their cultures and varieties of languages.

So, how can we navigate this experience?

In my family, I try to speak only in Spanish, while encouraging my sister to read bilingual books. These allow her to learn both languages at the same time, and how to translate between them. We also try to explain to my mom and my stepdad expressions in English that can make it easier for them to navigate living in the States. 

We maintain Spanish at home and English everywhere else. It is our roots, the last piece we have of home when we don’t know if we’ll ever be able to go back.

I know in other situations, parents prefer to have their children only speak English. They think this will make it easier for them to not have accents and be discriminated against. But in the words of Professor Farrelly: “Multilingualism is a beautiful thing, and down the road, those children will have that much more power and access for being multilingual than erasing their heritage language. A lot of people think we can’t cognitively be acquiring these multiple languages, but we know that’s not the case.”

English will be acquired one way or another because of the way the States has set up their society. The U.S. might not have an official language but English is the most widely spoken one. It can overcome other languages, so it is up to us to hold on as hard as we can in whatever variety of languages feel the most like home.

How to talk things out without guilt or defensiveness?

If there’s something I’ve learned about multiethnic cultures in the last five years, it’s that most of them share a more stern approach to parenting than American culture. Regardless of where we come from, we have a deep-rooted pride in cultural values.

I’ve heard many times minority parents say: “This land is too easy on kids” or “This land allows too much freedom” and not in a good light. So any comment about how their kids’ world or experiences are different from their own or how they may feel at a disadvantage from their classmates on multiple levels (including language, accents, appearances, and roots) can feel like an attack on themselves and their origin values and languages.

So talking to parents openly can feel impossible or even bring many feelings of guilt for “not valuing the sacrifices they made to bring their children to America” or “being ungrateful and disrespectful.” But saying what you feel is none of those things. And honoring parents’ efforts and sacrifices is not the same as living only for them. 

Your feelings do not have to be kept a secret. Las cosas de la casa no se quedan en la casa. You are allowed to speak about the things going on at home with others. They are your experiences, it is up to you who you share them with.

“For me, I’ve tried to stop feeling guilty about not being able to fully communicate both languages, honestly. I think it’s tough,” Olivas stated. “So I think just, letting people think whatever they think about you, whether you’re too white or you’re too Mexican or you’re whatever. I think just being yourself and finding an identity that you are proud of, whether or whatever you decide that is.”

And how do I navigate my own feelings?

1. Leave the guilt and shame behind, it was never yours to begin with. 

And then try to understand where parents come from: fear. Fear of losing their children’s ties to home. Fear of their children being attacked in this land they now have to call home.

2. You are not alone and you can always look for resources like bilingual therapy which might be helpful for you or your family (if they are willing to do it, if not it is okay too, do what helps you).

3. Keep trying to form your own language, your own version of what living in the States looks like for you. You are allowed to speak in any way you want.

4. There are ways to navigate every problem, even this one. People will learn to accept you, people who are different from you, people who are like you. They are out there.

5. Here’s a list of mental health resources, as well as some books/movies/ and TV shows you can explore that might comfort you:

Mental Health Resources

Movies/TV Shows

  • One Day at a Time
  • Elemental
  • The Terminal
  • Coco
  • Encanto
  • Blue Miracle
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once
  • Drive My Car
  • Ali’s Wedding
  • Minari
  • Red Panda
  • The Namesake
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • Jane the Virgin


  • Love in English by Maria E. Andreu
  • The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
  • The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri
  • Miseducated by Brandon M. Fleming
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
  • What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang
  • They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

In the end…

The way we speak, the choices we make, and the words we choose to tell our experiences frame the way we felt them. Languages frame the way we live. If we cage ourselves in just one language or one variation, we are losing a part of ourselves. Learning how to navigate these multilingual experiences with our families, classmates, and environments allows us to fully embrace who we might be and who we want to become.

Speak in whatever form you choose, because that language is for you and your unique experience.

Habla como quieras.

Como se te de la gana.