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10.20.2020 – Juan on Bilingual Life in the U.S.

Juan on Bilingual life in the US

My parents immigrated to the United States for a better life for my siblings and me. When they arrived in Chicago from Guadalajara, Mexico, they spoke little to no English. Growing up my parents always told me that the first step for success in this country was to learn the dominant language, English. Spanish was encouraged to be spoken at home. I’m grateful that during elementary school my teachers were bilingual and made my life much easier. However, I never truly felt confident speaking English with others. I never really had anyone to practice my English with, my sister was too little and my older brother had no motivation for learning the language.

Growing up my family from Mexico have always told me that I’m too “gringo” and that my Spanish is broken. Meanwhile, my friends in the United States have told me that I have an accent when speaking English. I’ve always been self conscious about the way I pronounce words. 

Nevertheless, I didn’t let this bother me and now I’m more confident when speaking in front of both family and friends. A quote that has always resonated with me is from the movie Selena (1997), “Mexican-American is tough, Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak english perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We have to be TWICE as perfect…”

When I started at UIC, I decided to take Spanish because I felt that there was still so much to learn. My parents told me that I was wasting my time since I already “know” the language. However, in reality I went in knowing only a bit. Research shows that heritage speakers are more efficient with oral than with written tasks. In other words, they speak more fluently than they write. I feel like this is true because second language learners began learning Spanish in a class setting. Meanwhile, heritage speakers grow up listening to the language and may not have sufficient grammatical knowledge when it comes to writing. My experience in UIC classes has been challenging but rewarding.

So growing up bilingual has also been beneficial. It has offered me many opportunities, both socially and professionally. It has allowed me to make friends with other people from different Spanish speaking countries other than Mexico. Oddly enough, video games have been a gateway for me to interact with other spanish speaking people and to make online friends. I took a summer trip to Bogota, Colombia two years ago with some friends and the fact that we all knew Spanish made the trip more enjoyable. My family and I visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and met a lot of people from Central America, they were telling us their stories as to why they decided to make the trip. I had the opportunity to work at Rush Hospital and was able to translate for families that didn’t speak English and needed help communicating with medical staff. 

Now I am a Spanish peer tutor and helping other UIC students learn Spanish! I have been working with the program for two semesters now and it has been a blast. Although I’m yet to have a student visit my session I feel prepared to help with their needs. Being bilingual sparked my passion for languages and I am currently learning Portuguese at UIC. I encourage others to take a couple minutes of their day to learn a new word or phrase in a different language. Learning a language is a beautiful thing and it opens up many opportunities in life. 

– Juan