Diglossia: A Basic Need for Bilingualism | January 2018 | Translation Journal

January 2018 Issue

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Diglossia: A Basic Need for Bilingualism

I will start by giving my own background, as I am a good example of a so-called bilingual person. I also want to point out, that this work is assuming that true bilingualism is not completely real, as one always has a preference for one language over another.

I come from a Spanish speaking family and learned to speak Spanish before I learned English. I came to the United States when I was just 7, so I did learn to write English before I did Spanish. For a very long time, I felt more comfortable in English, as in, it was the first language that I thought in, dreamt in, counted in, etc… I moved back to Ecuador when I was about 12, and had to learn how to write in Spanish, well enough to study in this language.

Just like in many families, “Spanglish” is a big part of our lives, but now that I became familiar with the term “Diglossia” I realized that it is much closer to what we speak at home, than what I thought. Spanglish is typically transformed words, in order to fit into the other language, whereas diglossia would be the word, as is, used intermingled in a conversation in the other language.

In David Pharies’ book ‘A Brief History of the Spanish Language’ University of Chicago Press, Pg. 26, he mentions “it was thought that the only truly bilingual people are those who control two languages at the level of the native speaker, but this requirement was relaxed when linguists discovered that this definition eliminates the great majority of people who use two languages on a regular basis. Now it is recognized that, in most bilinguals, one language is dominant and the other subordinate, and that the degree of competence in each language can vary greatly: It may be strong in both languages, strong in one and weak in the other, or even mediocre in both... Originally, diglossia was conceptualized as a variant of bilingualism in which a linguistic community uses two variants of a single language... Nowadays, the use of the term diglossia has undergone an important modification, eliminating the requirement that the two varieties pertain to the same language…”

The reason why this is of particular importance is because there are words or expressions that exist in certain languages, that do not exist in the other, even if that other, is our dominant language. We feel through language and express those feelings through language. We think certain jokes are funny in a certain language and have no possible translation. My favorite example of this is “te quiero” and “te amo” in Spanish vs. “I love you” in English. “love” is a feeling that in intensity, is somewhere in between “te quiero” and “te amo” with no possible translation. Therefore, if a bilingual person is in the need of expressing such a feeling, they may use it in the other language to do so, provided that the other person is also familiar with both languages.

There are of course several situations throughout history, in which two languages have been used simultaneously. In the Latin language for example, there was a period of time, in which Latin was used at the same time as Vulgar (the common version of the language, for which there is no written record). The modern Romance Languages derived from this spoken form of Latin. Even today, there are certain Latin words that are still in use, as we speak our modern version of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. They are typically words used in the legal realm, and never evolved into the modern language.

To further my research in the matter, I had the opportunity to interview two people of similar family situations as mine, but of different backgrounds. My first interview was done to a friend of mine, Li Lin. Li is currently a business coach, she is in her late 20s and she moved to the US with her family at age 8. Her English is flawless and so is her Chinese.

My interview with Li ended up being focused on her not being able to express certain thoughts and feelings to her parents, because they did not speak English, resulting in her not being able to rely on them for certain advice and it ended up affecting the hierarchy on the family, resulting in her, taking a ‘leadership’ role. Her parents ended up moving back to China and she stayed in the US, and still continues to feel responsible for her parents, as she feels a step ahead, caused by this language barrier.

After having this conversation with Li, it got me thinking about the many immigrant families in the US that had the potential to be affected by this phenomenon. I decided to take my research in that direction and came across “Parent University”.

Parent University was founded in Sioux Falls, SD within the Sioux Falls School District. It is lead by Dr. Poornima D’Souza. She works with immigrant parents and students, as a school and home liaison, and provides families with knowledge of the school system, academic programs and especially English language, which helps families adapt to a new and alien culture.

These families sometimes end up using their kids as interpreter or translators (I have seen this first hand as an interpreter myself). Sometimes these children are given the responsibility to talk to authority figures, pay bills, handle parent/teacher conferences, etc… completely removing their own authority over their children.

Dr. D’Souza majored in linguistics and her doctorate, is in Education. I wanted to use an abstract from her doctoral dissertation:

“This phenomenological study examined the experience of 14 immigrant parents adapting to life in the United States. Analysis of in-depth interviews revealed immigrant parents struggled to maintain their cultural identities and perform their parental roles due to their limited knowledge of language, culture, and use of technology. Societal values and cultural views isolated immigrant parents from others in society, causing them to feel separated from their native culture and extended family system. Parental beliefs and desire to maintain native culture and traditions led them to feel stigmatized and marginalized by members of the dominant society. This led to conflicts with their children.
Children gained power with greater knowledge and experience, affecting parental roles and authority and causing a shift in traditional parent-child roles. Children interpreted cultural norms, took on leadership roles, and became errand runners for their family, resulting in parental loss of self-esteem and a sense of futility. An acculturation framework helped to analyze the adaptation experiences of immigrant parents, particularly during the stages of separation and marginalization (Sam & Barry, 2010). Role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload theory revealed the psychological, social, and cultural factors affecting family systems, family dynamics, and enactment of parent-child roles (Biddle, 1986). The lack of English language acquisition reduced parental opportunities to gain information or participate in economic, social, and political life. Recommendations involved educational
programs and increased community support for immigrant families. This included establishing a “parent university” with classes in literacy skills, creating art therapy sessions to enhance resilience, conducting school-based programs to facilitate school-parent partnerships, and organizing community events to mediate between two cultural contexts.”

This interview made me realize there are certain children in this situation that often times are encouraged by their parents to make English their first language, sometimes to the point of eliminating the family language completely, as is sadly done in many Hispanic homes, where Spanish is viewed as a less important language.

My next interview was to a Chilean friend, his name is Pablo and he is from Easter Island. He currently lives in Santiago, Chile and he is a lawyer. While he was growing up, he mentioned there were certain words that he used in their native tongue. He did not speak the Rapa Nui language and his family actually discouraged knowing more of their culture, however there were certain words that were kept, being that they had no real translation.

When researching about diglossia in Easter Island, I came across the term “Colonial Diglossia” which caught my attention. I thought this was interesting, as coming from South America, I do find that not just language, but native culture is seem somewhat as a “second class” culture. Just like Pablo mentioned in the Rapa Nui culture, the “colonized” tend to feel inferior, therefore ignoring and sometimes even hating their own culture, preventing these languages to flourish or just continue their natural evolution.
I have an abstract from “Amerian Anthropologist”, a book by Miki Makihara, on the Rapa Nui language, and the concept of Colonial Diglossia.

Recent work in linguistic anthropology highlights the role of linguistic ideologies, or cultural conceptions of language, in transforming social relations and linguistic structure and use. This article examines the links between language attitudes and uses in their institutional and interactional contexts on Rapa Nui, a Polynesian island community that is part of the Chilean nation-state. By the 1970s, a sociolinguistic hierarchy and functional compartmentalization of languages between Spanish and Rapa Nui--what I will describe as "colonial diglossia"--had become established in the community, which was rapidly becoming bilingual. Language shift toward Spanish has continued to advance since then. However, rising Rapa Nui syncretic language practice and consciousness, combined with the political successes of a local indigenous movement and changes in the local economy, are now contributing to the breakdown of colonial diglossia, generating better conditions for the maintenance of the Rapa Nui language.”

As we can read in this abstract, it is just recently, that there are tools and possibilities to keep this culture alive, along with its language. I researched Colonial Diglossia in general, and found (not surprisingly) that it is quite often the case in practically all of the territories in the world that were once a colony, including of course, the United States.

My last interview was done to Mallory Isburg. Malory is an accomplished young lady from South Dakota. She is Lakota and just graduated from Yale University. I met Mallory because she wanted to interview me, for a project, as she was majoring in Spanish and Sociology and she was in need of a bilingual person to ask some questions. Lucky for me, I was in need of a similar situation for this assignment, and it ended up being a double interview.

It wasn’t very surprising that her story with diglossia was extremely similar to that of Pablo. She mentioned a sense of embarrassment, not on her part, but going backward in the generations of the family. Just recently, it has been made important to know about the culture that you come from, but before, some of the Lakota elders deemed in very unpractical to invest time learning Lakota.

While doing the research on this concept of Colonial Diglossia, I came across David Shaul’s work (mentioned in the bibliography), he too quotes Makihara, and I decided to use and abstract of this book as well, to help with my definition:

“Before the four-legged babysitter (television and its derivatives), most Native American Communities in the United States were diglossic: English, the language of the matrix culture (and the written language learned in school), was the Formal variety and the Informal variety was a local or regional Native American language. After mass media (among other forces) endangered all Native American languages in North America (…), the diglossia went through gradual collapse.

Makihara has called the diglossia that happens when dominant cultures are foisted on native peoples “colonial diglossia”.

Going back to my thesis, I did want to support the idea that being fully bilingual is, in my opinion, not a true possibility without diglossia. Once you become accustomed to expressing certain feelings, using language/vocabulary to express said feelings, it really isn’t possible to not want to express them, in a language that doesn’t have the vocabulary to support this expression.

When in this situation, if you are with someone who understands that other language (call it language 2), you would use the word in that language (2), while speaking a different language (language 1) all together. Going back and forth from language 1 to language 2.

As we can see, there is the need to borrow words from different languages that we speak, in order to fully express what we need to say. A favorite word in Portuguese for example, is “saudade” it has no translation in any other language that I speak. It doesn’t mean “nostalgia” in Spanish, it doesn’t mean “mancanza” in Italian… It is a much stronger and beautiful word. Once I learned Portuguese, I started having this feeling, now that I knew it was a possibility, and if I need to express it, and I am with someone that understands it, I will use it, even though speaking in Spanish, English or Italian.

In addition to diglossia and borrowing words from different languages, in order to express ourselves as accurately as possible, there is also the fact that there will always be a preference over one language, no matter how comfortable you feel in your second, third or fourth language.


Shaul, David. Linguistic Ideologies of Native American Language Revitalization: Doing the Lost Language Ghost Dance. click here

Pharies, David. A Brief History of the Spanish Language. The University of Chicago Press

Lin, Li. Personal Interview, July 2017

D’Souza, Poornima. Personal Interview, June 2017

Aguirre, Pablo. Personal Interview, June 2017

Isburg, Malory. Personal Interview, July2017

Makihara, Miki. American Anthropologist Vol. 106, No. 3 (Sept. 2004)


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