The disconnect between my culture and the language I speak

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I have often heard that belonging to two cultures is like having each foot in a different world, one with your family and the environment you grew up in, and the other with your friends and the world outside of the four walls of your house. This comes with its challenges, its benefits and its difficulties. But there is often one thing that helps a person differentiate between their personal culture and the social culture around them: the language. 

Whether it’s Hindi, Spanish or Tagalog, sometimes the language of our family or culture helps ground us, but what happens when a person doesn’t know the language of their culture? 

I have thought a lot about this question, especially recently. There are many answers to this question and there lies a resounding feeling of agitation and discomfort when it is asked. As I cannot speak for everyone, I will simply speak for myself and what I have observed.  

When I was younger, not knowing Spanish did not really bother me. However, as I grew up in my community where many people spoke Spanish, including a good portion of my family, not knowing Spanish felt almost shameful. I felt bad for not knowing the language of my culture and not being able to speak with my Abuela without having to stop and translate the next few words in my head. Hearing other people speak Spanish and when other people tried to speak to me in Spanish made me feel like I was excluded from a part of my culture that I wanted so desperately to be a part of and proud of. 

I realize now that feeling this way is common, especially among first or second-generation Americans. However, I also realize that my concerns are misplaced. Now in college, I have met so many people who belong to the same culture as I do and welcomed me regardless of whether or not I spoke Spanish. I realized that although language is important, it is not the most vital part of Mexican identity, nor does any other language have to be to any other culture.

I also came to the realization that it was not my fault that I didn’t speak Spanish, nor was it anyone else’s. Growing up in America, American culture is dominant as it is also part of us. So, when we are kids, we spend most of our time trying to assimilate and understand the social world around us while our familial culture is simply something that is normal. Then, when we get older and begin to grow into our own people and move out of our homes, we begin to try and find the balance between the cultural worlds we grew up in. For a very long time, I believed that this balance included knowing both languages, but I realize now that values and identity ground you more than a language does. 

Sometimes I still struggle with this question of whether or not I truly am a part of my culture that is seen so easily from my skin and my features. But, as I continue to grow, I will continue to discover more about myself and my cultural identities (both of them).

Contact Isabella Carreno at [email protected].