Monday, March 18, 2013

Being bicultural is like being a lefty

Being able to speak two languages makes you a bilingual person. Some of those who are bilingual are also bicultural. So what does it means to be bicultural?

I know people in Mexico with doctorate degrees who speak and write English almost perfectly, but have a limited understanding of what it means to live in the U.S. So, although these people are fully bilingual, they live in only one culture. I also know U.S.-born non-Hispanic people who have learned Spanish and have better grammar than the average native Spanish speaker. They are Spanish-language experts, but they do not necessarily understand Hispanic culture.

Here’s another example: I am left handed and, like other lefties, I have learned to live in a world designed to accommodate right-handed people. We lefties understand what it means to be left-hand dominant but we also know how to navigate the right-handed world. Left handers live in two worlds.

This is a small picture of what it’s like to be bicultural. A bicultural person is usually a bridge between two communities. Bicultural people need to have one foot in each culture so they can function in two different worlds.  Just like lefties, their brains need to be ready to adapt all the time.

Here are some examples of biculturalism in my life:  

•    When I talk to family and friends in Mexico, or to Spanish-speaking friends here, I am expected to know about current soccer teams, the latest news in the war on drugs, or the newest Spanish pop singer. But I am also expected to know about what’s going on with American pop culture and politics, like the latest Broncos news.

•    In 2012, there was a presidential election in Mexico too. Because of the nature of my job, I needed to be up-to-date with issues and policy news on both sides of the border. I was constantly scanning news in both languages.

•    In my mind I am frequently converting Fahrenheit temperatures to Celsius so I can talk about the weather in Colorado with my parents in Mexico in a way they will understand. The same goes for feet and yards to meters and kilometers, pounds to kilograms, and ounces to liters. When my daughters were born, I needed to know their height and weight in both the U.S. measuring system and the metric system to communicate with my friends and family. 

•    Did you know that American-educated students think of world geography differently than those educated abroad? American students are familiar with seven continents; but for a foreign-educated person, there are only five because America is considered one large continent from Alaska all the way to Chile. 

•    I even have to think of numbers in two ways. A billion in the U.S. is one thousand millions, but a billion outside the U.S. is one million millions. 

Confused? Welcome to my word!

As a bicultural person, I must consider all these things – and many more – when communicating with Latinos. The majority of them (69 percent) believe U.S Hispanics have different culture from non-Hispanics, according to a recent Pew Research survey. That’s part of the reason why, in most communications scenarios, a good translation is not enough. A straightforward translation doesn’t account for the biculturalism. Only a bicultural person can truly decode the two languages that represent two ways of seeing the world. 

PS. Mark your calendar for Left-Handers Day. I am planning on celebrating it at SE2 by designating a “Lefty Zone”:


Blogger peter kenneth said...

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April 17, 2013 at 4:31 AM  

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