As a mixed kid, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I speak multiple languages or made fun of for why I don’t. I’m half Salvadorian and half Vietnamese, yet I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish or Vietnamese. Being born in SoCal, I was brought up speaking only English; though, when I was a baby, my mom would speak to me in Spanish so I can understand some and can speak a little, but I was never fluent.
My mom’s side of the family speaks mainly Spanish, except for my younger cousins who were also born here. This separated family events a little bit to where my siblings and I stuck with the kids and the adults stayed with each other. I often felt left out when trying to approach my own family members because I wasn’t confident enough to speak the language, afraid of having too weird of an accent or saying the incorrect thing.
It wasn’t uncommon for people to make fun of my siblings and I if we tried to say things in Spanish. Even if we said it right or our accents were decent, our unexpected attempts were met with a few giggles here and there. This isn’t to say they had ill-intentions, it’s just to say how hard it can be to continue trying something when you feel embarrassed.
As for my dad’s side, my dad never spoke Vietnamese to us because he came to the US from Vietnam when he was young and thus mostly spoke English himself growing up. However, since my last name is Huynh, many Vietnamese kids I’ve met have automatically asked me how Vietnamese I am (I apparently look too ethnically ambiguous) and if I speak the language then “oh… why not?” or “oh, well you’re not really Viet then.”
This has happened with Spanish too but when people see me or my last name they usually assume I don’t speak Spanish at all anyway, when in reality, my family is actually more in tune with speaking Spanish than Vietnamese. But, then I’d say a Spanish name or dish or word with the proper accent and pronunciation (since I grew up hearing it and refuse to whitewash what I do know) and everyone would turn to look at me, curious as to how someone who looks like me could speak anything in Spanish. And then, when I say I speak just a little, they are disappointed when I continue explaining I’m not fully fluent, again thinking I’m not “Salvadoran enough” either, just as they thought before. On both sides, I lose.
What us mixed or non-bilingual kids don’t tell you is that we’re often disappointed too, in ourselves. We wish we did know the first languages of our parents and could have the opportunities to speak to older generations of our families; but there are more reasons to not knowing a language than just being “lazy” or “not wanting to.”
So many immigrant parents refrain from teaching their children because they don’t want their kids to go through the same experiences of racism they did; because they are trying their hardest to be fluent in English to get the best possible opportunities for their family and kids; or because they have lost their own connection to their first language and don’t know how to get it back. All of these reasons or more are valid. And none of them should have to be explained to someone else out of a rude and invasive curiosity.
Kids who have trouble speaking their parent’s first language are also likely embarrassed to try, don’t know where to start or don’t want to trouble their parents by asking to learn. This doesn’t make them any less of the ethnicity that they are or the culture they grew up a part of. It is an unfortunate circumstance to be in and yes, kids can grow up and learn but there are stigmas, and lack of resources, and other things that may be personally preventing them. Maybe they are already trying and just aren’t there yet. The point is you never know, and you likely don’t understand if you’re too busy making assumptions about them.
No matter what, you should never judge someone based off of the language they speak or don’t speak. A person can still be culturally involved in other ways even if they aren’t fluent in the language. So, just remember that everyone is valid and no one deserves to feel like they are “not enough” of their culture.