Yesterday I was delighted to find out that a Seattle-based television production company, the Parent Television Network, has uploaded some of its programs online for public viewing.
One of their television programs, titled Bilingual Families, was filmed a few years ago and includes me, my husband, my children and members of my previous organization, the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network. It has been fun watching ourselves on TV over the years whenever the program is aired. CLICK HERE to view Bilingual Families.
Watching this television program got me thinking again about how bilingualism and multilingualism is portrayed around the world. In general, our global media sources do not really know what to do with families like ours.
Multilingualism, as we all know, is a common occurrence in the world. There are more multilinguals on our globe than monolinguals. However, the majority of these multilinguals live in economically disadvantaged countries. The image of multilinguals that we are often provided is one of a desperately needy bunch, striving to get into richer, monolingual countries. This doesn’t bode well for the overall global image of multilingualism.
“Bilingual” as an American socio-economic definition
In the US, the media has used the word “bilingual” to mean “Spanish-speaker” for so long now that most US citizens equate the two without question: A “bilingual TV show” automatically means Spanish-speaking. If someone is selling a “bilingual book,” then we assume it must be in Spanish and English. When I had my previous organization, the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network, I received one email after another asking me why my articles weren’t also written in Spanish and why I wasn’t a Spanish speaker.
What is ironic is that rather than the Spanish-speaking community in the US working toward restoring the term “bilingual” to its original meaning (“a person who uses or is able to use two languages”), most are simply satisfied with an attempt to divert the meaning from that of a Spanish-speaking illegal immigrant to one of a Spanish-speaking citizen (English-speaker may or may not necessarily be implied). However, neither are complete definitions of a “bilingual.” Neither embrace the global understanding of the term “bilingual.” All these definitions do is perpetuate an artificial stereotype into which Spanish-speakers are encouraged to step into and fulfill.
As we see, advertisers are more than happy to jump onto this bandwagon and use this skewed terminology to their advantage. Have you seen the enormous number of products (many of very low quality) developed in the past few years targeted specifically at Spanish-speakers? Advertisers are happy to define for us, via stereotypical imagery, how a bilingual looks, acts, talks, and engages in the world – while promoting target products of course. The urge for us to step into this perfect role is so very tempting.
Global communication begins at home
It will be a wonderful day when multilingual families around the world, rich and poor, old and young, are able to identify with one another globally on their own terms – when we alone define for ourselves what “bilingual” and “multilingual” mean and we can pass on this meaning to our children without media intervention. It would be a giant step toward identifying our commonalities which are based on our deeper connections with language and culture.
As parents of multilingual children, it is up to us. The tagline of this website states: “Global communication begins at home.” We are the gatekeepers of how our bilingual and multilingual children see themselves and how they feel they belong in the world today. Here is our chance to pass on to our children what it truly means to be bilingual and multilingual on both very personal and global levels.
Until that day comes, enjoy the television program, Bilingual Families. Hopefully it will inspire you even further along your path of multilingual parenting.
Let me know what you think about this program! What was most inspiring? What annoyed you or made your feel worse about raising your children multilingually? Do you know of other inspiring videos that we should share with the rest of the multilingual world? Let us know!