From ordering pizza to calling 911, bilingual kids feel pressure to 'be the adult'
This story is part of Ideastream Public Media's latest Sound of Us series, featuring the voices of Ideastream's Summer 2022 interns.
Many first-generation Americans growing up in bilingual households feel they have to grow up faster than other kids. They often find themselves translating for their parents, and many report experiencing discrimination that can make them question their place in this country.
As a first-generation American, I wanted to shine a light on this experience and see what, if anything, is being done to support bilingual kids.
Memories of a bilingual childhood
To start, I attended a bilingual reading day at HOLA Ohio in Painesville. I found a group of 6-year-old kids sitting in a circle, listening to a reader tell the story of an artistic monkey, in both English and Spanish.
HOLA Ohio is a nonprofit organization that provides social services for the local Latino community. The founder and executive director, Veronica Isabel Dahlberg, loves the organization’s partnership with a local library.
“I just think that is so important in terms of improving literacy and educational outcomes, and we're going to be doing more of that,” Dahlberg said.
Watching the kids listen to stories in two languages stirred a lot of memories from when I was their age. I started kindergarten in Westlake. I only knew a handful of English phrases because my family had just moved from Aguascalientes, Mexico. It’s crazy to think that just a few years later, my brothers and I would speak English fluently and without an accent.
Similarly, Dahlberg was born and raised in Canton, though she didn’t really speak English until she started kindergarten. Her mom was from Mexico and her dad was a Hungarian immigrant. She was inspired to start HOLA Ohio after being a child-interpreter for her parents her whole life.
“You answer the phone for your parents, you have to write the school letters for your parents, you have to read the notes that come home from school,” Dahlberg explained. “All of those things, I did.”
Even though it might sound insane to have a kid proofread your emails or make phone calls for you, this experience is not rare for first-generation Americans.
Amanda, not Alexa
Growing up, my family didn’t have a smart speaker like an Alexa. Instead we had an “Amanda” — i.e., me.
“Amanda, make a reservation. Amanda, place an order for a large pepperoni pizza.”
It’s important to note that my parents spoke English well. Still, they often asked my brothers and me make phone calls on their behalf because they were worried people wouldn’t understand them.
Some of my friends had similar experiences.
Lauren, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong, grew up in a small town in New Jersey. She remembers having to stand in for her father after her mom suffered a medical emergency when she was only 6 years old.
“We had to call EMS, but the thing is, my dad put me in charge of everything,” Lauren recalled. “It was one of the earliest instances that I can remember where I had to work almost as an adult, but as a child, because I spoke English.”
Even at her very young age, Lauren says she felt pressure to speak clearly, and without an accent.
Our conversation reminded me of my own experience assimilating my speech. I remember coming home from school in second grade and turning on my “Hooked on Phonics'' cassettes. I would sit at our table and practice my pronunciation for hours every night, trying to lose my accent.
I spoke with my younger brother Danny, who also remembers using these tapes. He shared with me that his accent made his early school years scary.
“I very quickly felt like an outcast simply because, one, I felt like I didn’t look like a lot of the other students,” said Danny. “And two, I didn’t sound exactly the same. I had a small accent when I was younger, so that was scary, being different.”
I had no idea my brother was experiencing a lot of the same emotions I was. My conversation with him, and the conversations I had with other people who had grown up in bilingual households, showed me we’ve all had to endure very similar situations.
I wish I'd had access to a place like HOLA Ohio when I was younger, because it would have helped me connect with other kids similar to me. I’d love to see organizations like that grow, so that bilingual kids growing up today don’t feel as isolated as I did.
In the meantime, if you’re ever talking to a nervous kid on the phone? Be patient. They might be standing in for an even more nervous parent.