Growing up in a small Texas town, my East Indian immigrant father insisted I learned to speak English and our native language, Gujarati, at the same time. As a teenager who desperately tried to fit into American life, I often didn’t understand the reasoning behind my father’s logic. Now in midlife, I have a deep sense of respect for my father and what he was trying to teach me about the importance of honoring my heritage and keeping my backstory alive through language.
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Here are five lessons I gained from learning to speak English and Gujarati at the same time.
It gave me a deeper appreciation of my culture.
Language is a gateway for learning more deeply about culture. When my mom would cook, I’d ask questions about different ingredients and learn what they were called in my native language. It allowed me to bond with her in a way that felt natural since she learned Gujarati and Hindi as a young girl, and picking up English came much later in life.
On movie nights, when my parents watched Bollywood flicks on their VCR, I also caught myself pausing to pay attention to the clothes, language, and mannerisms. Beyond home, when I attended cultural events in the community, I felt like I belonged because I could speak our native language and converse with different members of the community.
It enabled me to foster connections with extended family.
Most of my family in India knew how to speak English, but some older generation members could only speak in Gujarati. I remember visiting my great-grandmother and sitting with her on the porch swing, asking her different questions in our native language. Her delight was palpable as she talked with me about school, what I enjoyed about my visit to India, and what favorite foods I craved. My ability to connect with my great-grandmother came to life because we shared a language — and I still cherish these conversations and memories today.
It helped me understand my parents’ history.
My parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s and left family, friends, and immediate access to their home country behind. I often saw they were nostalgic for the past, recounting memories of their various adventures in India — my father would talk about going to the movies with friends or buying various sundries from a street vendor. He would almost always tell these stories in Gujarati, allowing me to learn about where my parents came from without anything getting lost in the translation.
It enhanced my creative abilities.
There were days when learning two distinct languages became cumbersome. I had to vacillate between English at school and Gujarati at home. At the time, I probably didn’t realize the benefits of learning more than one language, but now I know, it did have a part in helping me think more creatively and expanded my ability to communicate. I constantly intersected with different sounds, words, and sentence structures — it forced my brain to think about concepts in multiple ways.
It allowed me to see the world with a different perspective.
When you learn multiple languages at once, you’re automatically pushed to broaden your perspective. You learn quickly that there are multiple ways of approaching and thinking about the world. Language provides a gateway into learning about different foods, clothes, beliefs, different day-to-day lives, and what it means to embrace diverse roots.
These days, I’m so grateful I grew up learning two languages because it’s given me an understanding of which parts of my cultural history I want to preserve and teach my daughter.