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The Underbelly of Being Bilingual

Phương Liên Palafox


Little- Phương Narrative

Kids hold secrets—lying about brushing their teeth or taking an extra cookie. As an immigrant kid, the hush-hush hides an entire home existence. Oh, how I would have traded in my Asian-American currency for Acceptance. So, I ingested the tônes of my Vietnamese, hidden from all, upon entry into kindergarten. I studied classmates ssssmmMMashing their consonants together and closing their words with the thud of their tongue. I worked and worked to sound and look like the kaleidoscope of kids and adults around me. I was a mighty quick student. I stopped bringing my jasmine rice and fatty thịt kho for lunch when they told me it was dog food—how stupid of me to be so offensive? Alas, with all secrets, the cost is cancerous. Despite the grand effort to cloak my bilingualism and otherness, my days (and face) were visibly Asian.  And, it was eating me from the outside-in.

Bilingual Exaltation

Now, I spend my 43-year-old days as a bilingual speech-language pathologist in the United States. My work invests in honoring the sounds and language structures of faraway places. Then, using the language-capital, I work alongside families, schools and organizations to empower Language Learners. Being on the other side of puberty and adulting responsibilities of annual April taxes, my view as a bilingual person has sharpened.  A pristine, scenic view of bilingualism has emerged. With state and federal mandates enforcing multilingual considerations (e.g., Lau versus Nichols, Bilingual Education Act) and businesses desperately needing language support to cast a wider net to pull in profits, there is a need for those of us who speak more than one language. It appears that I’ve hit the occupational jackpot, and it only cost deposits of childhood shame.

From my professional corner, I see this glorification of being multilingual. Organizations eagerly advertise for bilingual speakers. Stipends are lures for employment opportunities. Monolingual peers talk of how “I wish I was bilingual like you!” Then, the contracts with our misspelled names have our signature in blue ink, and we begin the bilingual work—work that requires two grammatical systems, two sound systems, two cultures, two histories and an unveiling of a secret that we’ve kept for so very long. So, what does this “look like” and “sound like” to be the bilingual person in a work space?

Bilingual Candor

 I can report that my work as a bilingual professional requires: 1) twice the amount of work, 2) less than half of the resources and 3) an exponential amount of emotional bandwidth. Also, let us divulge that a majority of this work is unseen, not compensated and held to a higher standard. Come revel in my Asian purview in the following scenario:

For a bilingual Vietnamese, English speech/language evaluation, I need to test in both languages to determine the needs of the child. First, I have to create my own assessment process because there are not available tools for Vietnamese children. Then, the testing and report writing takes twice as long as my English-only evaluations. I then get pulled in by another English-speaking assessment peer to “spend a few minutes” with gathering more information from parents. This takes me 2.5 hours. At the meeting where we review the results, I am asked to be the interpreter because funds and time was not dedicated to finding a professional interpreter. Then, every few months, the family will call me about a question that is not related to my professional skills. My privilege of understanding the majority language in the country and the trust I’ve earned with the family is the catalyst to these calls. And, finally, as I do this work, leaders (who typically speak a singular language) in my field are questioning the validity of my bilingualness. How can they trust me to be bilingual enough? Should professional standards be written for my bilingual skills (outside of my ability to obtain two degrees and pass the same assessments as my monolingual equivalents)? 

Here’s the thing. I am wholeheartedly fueled knowing that I can be a safe resource between home and school/clinical/medical worlds for my students and families. Here’s the other thing. I should be recognized and compensated for the efforts being poured into my workload. Let us also state the fact that there is a disproportionate number of bilingual/bicultural professionals who have had to navigate systems without generational wealth and resources and were inaugural members of their family to become embedded in the American educational and work systems. The questions, then, that we should be asking need to center the Language Rights of our multilingual communicators.

5 Considerations for Supporting Bilingual/Bicultural Team Members:

For my bilingual/bicultural peers and me, our work is personal. Yes, it fulfills a professional need. It also transcends the narrative of previous generations. We are conduits between a sacred past and a world that is bending toward international justice. On this continuum of bilingual skills and services, then, we need to honor the language and the humans who hold the important linguistic tales. Here are considerations for your organizations in supporting bilingual/bicultural team members:

  • Look at your leadership team. Are bicultural/bilingual members represented at this organizational echelon? 

  • Honor that multilingual communication is worthy. Stop centering the majority language.

  • Acknowledge the workload, including emotional bandwidth, of doing bilingual work.

  • Compensate for the required time invested in multilingual work. Time studies provide data to support this equitable effort. 

  • Create safe opportunities for bilingual/bicultural professionals to gather, discourse and relay professional needs on a regular basis. 

Bilingual Joy

Now, this final message is to my bilingual/bicultural unicorns. When we revel in this bilingual space, two languages are colliding in our brains and hearts. When they come together, I imagine, there is so much bright light that shines on our world. The glow, holding sounds and words and experiences, fuels the days of the world around us. So, for us, we are surely twice as perfect as we hold and honor all the parts of us. Now, let us make space for our efforts to be acknowledged. And, this should surely not be a secret. 

Phương Liên Palafox is a Vietnamese-Chinese bilingual speech-language pathologist, author and advocate.  Currently, her time is spent empowering clients and their families, professionals and educators across the United States through direct speech/language services, individualized training to build confident presentation skills and professional development. With a foundation of evidence-based and human-centered practices, she is continually invested in Cultural Responsiveness, Advocacy, Narrative-Based Interventions and the Mental Health of Educators.  Attendees leave her presentations and storytelling feeling validated, refueled and re-engaged to fuel their meaningful work. Her work has been featured in various national publications, and she is the author of The Heartbeat of Speech-Language Pathology.  You can find more information at

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