Friday, January 22, 2016

Bilingualism as a Superpower

Remember that day that I took an airport shuttle to JFK, hung out for a couple hours, then took a bus to Grand Central Station, and took the train back home? Yep… that was today, my 41st birthday. I was supposed to fly to Chicago for a family visit, but Winter Storm Somebody-or-Other caused flight delays and cancellations all along the East Coast. Turned out to be a day of transit in all forms but air.

Being at JFK of course made me think about international travel. I got to speak Spanish today, too. On the train on the way home, I thought of another metaphor of bilingualism, to add to the collection I developed while in Italy. Here’s the latest: Bilingualism as a superpower. Indeed, bilingualism is MY superpower, and it also happens to be a secret superpower.

Let’s talk generally about bilingualism as a superpower.
  • You know those times when people are not able to communicate, because they speak two different languages? Voila! A bilingual arrives at the scene, and everything becomes clear. Problem solved.
  • Want to travel and get the inside scoop, haggle, eat where the locals eat? Bilingualism to the rescue. Plus, you’ll never get lost if you can ask directions in the local language!
  • Here’s a really useful one: You call your credit card company, bank, airline, utility company, etc., and the automated phone service answers: “For English, press one. Para español, marque dos.” Guaranteed your wait time will be less en español.

I could go on and on…
Now let’s consider why bilingualism might be, for some, a secret superpower. As a secret bilingual, I have learned that you can never assume, never take for granted that a person speaks one language or another. For example, just because someone “looks” Latino or has a last name like Pérez or Gonzales, it doesn’t mean they speak Spanish. I seem to have the opposite reaction: Whenever I speak Spanish, people are surprised.

So maybe this means I don’t “look” like someone who speaks Spanish. But why not? In the Southern Cone and Spain, I fit in pretty well. I look like I could be from there… I can pass. In those places, people notice my accent, but don’t wonder why the heck I can speak Spanish in the first place.

So what is it about me, here in the US, that leads people to believe I should be monolingual? Whiteness? USA-ness? My inland northern American English mother tongue? Do I speak English too well to be bilingual? Or is it that no one expects a gringa to produce Spanish with sometimes nearly the same fluency and competency as her native English, without that telltale gringo accent, able to trill her r’s and use idioms and colloquialisms?

I remember how, recently, at a university event, my friend-colleague introduced me (in Spanish) to the speaker, saying, “Robin speaks Spanish because… well, because she does.” Maybe she realized that if an explanation for my bilingualism was needed, it would imply that it was somehow nonsensical. Why would an explanation be needed in that context? I could assume that the guest speaker spoke Spanish because he was Mexican-American; he didn’t need to introduce himself and explain his bilingualism. For him, bilingualism was a not a surprise or a secret.

Secret or not, I am immensely grateful for my bilingual superpower. It is the greatest gift I have, the most powerful skill I can offer in any situation. Maybe the moral of the story is to expect the unexpected, not just with languages and bilingualism. The fact is, in most cases, we have no idea of the depth of talents and experiences inside each person we meet. We all have hidden superpowers. What’s yours?