Chapter 7: English and the global perspective

7.6 Bilingualism as a Polish American (synthesis)


English 102, April 2021

Growing up, I was always teased in elementary for not pronouncing my words correctly. I was shy of the fact that English was my second language and I never really spoke out about my culture. Being a Polish-American in a small town of Madison, Ohio was tough in the beginning. I was living in both Madison and in Zambrow interchangeably. My language skills in both languages suffered due to the confusing back and forth nature. However, as I grew up, I was finally able to get a hold of both English and Polish all while promoting my reading and writing skills.

Literacy is such a broad definition, I feel like I have to explain exactly what it is. To help me define and explain what even literacy is, I will use James Paul Gee’s academic journal called “What Is Literacy.” Gee explains literacy in two components ― discourses and identity kits (18). Discourses defined by James Paul Gee is understanding of how words different correlate to form thoughts and/or actions by a specific type of social group. A primary discourse is a form of learning the language easily, like your first native language (Gee 22). For example, I was raised in a Polish home where I was taught Polish since my immigrant family didn’t speak any English at the time. I grew up having my Polish language being my primary discourse and being my personal culture. However, I had to learn English by going to school, which makes it my secondary discourse. A secondary discourse is where someone (like me) needs to learn parts of a different language and culture in another area (Gee 22). My secondary discourse was taught to me in schools and watching American television at a young age.

I am not the only one who grew up having problems with language development. According to an academic article written by E. Nicoladis and F. Genesee, preschoolers may have cognitive limits of their own vocabulary (264). The article’s study shows that the vocabulary of younger children may be below average at their age. This could be because they are growing up in a mixed discourse and may be confusing their minds. James Paul Gee explains the value of literacy in his article, however he clearly explains the difference between acquisition and learning. In a primary discourse, like my home, I am exposed around my family and I acquire the language subconsciously, which is called acquisition (Gee 20). In a secondary discourse, like school, I have to learn the language that involves and I have to be conscious of my teachers (other students who spoke English in my case) (Gee 20).

Since I am exposed to both primary and secondary discourses growing up, my mind mixes up and starts to code mixing. Code mixing is the mixing of two or more languages into a sentence. For example, a Polish child learning English may not know the word dog in English, but know the word dog. So, when the bilingually confused child is exclaiming that there is a big dog, they might say “duży dog!” which means big dog. Code mixing is very common in my household and it comes very naturally in bilingual or multilingual people. Code mixing in preschoolers happens when the child is more dominant in one language and they cannot figure out the translation to the other language (Nicoladis and Genesee 262). According to a scholarly book by Jürgen M. Meisel called CODE-SWITCHING IN YOUNG BILINGUAL CHILDREN: The Acquisition of Grammatical Constraints explain the frustrations children have when in the classrooms. Preschool students tend to code switch or code mix as a relief strategy (Meisel 415). Students at this age do not have the confidence to switch from their dominant language to another so easily which prevents the ability for them to learn (Meisel 415). Preschoolers often become distant from families and refuse to make friends because of their lack of language skills. In preschool, I remember I always had a very hard time making new friends because I could not understand them. It was very frustrating when everyone around me was talking in a language I barely understood.

I spent more time trying to understand what these teachers and my peers were saying to me. To this day, I still have problems remembering different translations for different words. I know I am not the only student who experienced this amount of frustration. The reason why it was so difficult to catch onto one language and prevent code mixing is because children at a young age go through a developmental phase where the children can only process one language and its proper grammar (Meisel 417). According to an article written by Eugene E. Garcia and Kenji Hakuta children that are bilingual have generally lower standardized test scores (375). Standardized tests time students while they answer questions. The article by Hauta and Garcia talk about how the students cannot process the text as fast as other, English native speaking children. As I grew older, I have learned to understand the English language better. I was able to make friends and get good test scores. However, when it came to timed standardized tests, I was always one of the last ones to finish and I always had over a dozen questions left to complete. Bilingual children need longer time to understand the question. I was always someone who needed to have extra time after test time.

However, there are separate studies that show other results. Luckily, all the articles share both ideas so it will be easy to use all three sources to explain the complexity of the human mind when it comes to a child’s bilingualism. Also in the article written by Hakuta and Garcia as an opposing view, they mention how the learning of the second language does not compete with the  mind capacity of a child who already knows their first language (375). The child’s “rate of acquisition of a second language is highly related to the proficiency level in the native language” (Hakuta and Garcia 375). The article then explains with data that the better the student’s understanding of their native language, the better the understanding of the second language that they are learning. Unlike in the article written by Hakuta and Garcia, Jürgen M. Meisel talks about how code switching affects students ability to understand and speak the second language.

Jürgen M. Meisel’s article called “CODE-SWITCHING IN YOUNG BILINGUAL CHILDREN” discusses how over time, code switching is turned off in children’s brains. But the younger children tend to focus on their primary discourse because that is all that they can handle. As they grow older, “they apparently acquire the more subtle pragmatic or sociolinguistic abilities” (Meisel 415). This scholarly article discusses that preschool children use code switching because they have a hard time to comprehend two different languages.

In the article “Language Development in Preschool Bilingual Children” by Nicoladis, E., and F. Genesee, they describe how parents and teachers see code mixing as a confusion of the languages. They discuss that children are able to differentiate two different languages by the age of two years old. Unlike my other sources, they explain that they have scored higher on 30% higher on vocabulary tests (Nicoladis, E., and F. Genesee 261). The article then describes that the only confusion children have with the two languages is how to pronounce the different letters and sounds (Nicoladis, E., and F. Genesee 260). My weakest point as a bilingual person is properly pronouncing words. My brother was never able to roll the letter R in Polish but as he grew older, he was able to do so. I was the opposite. When I was speaking in English, I always rolled my letter R and my peers were either fascinated by it or making fun of it.

Understanding bilingualism is very complex and parents and different students tell you different stories, which is why it is so difficult to get hard evidence to prove whether or not being bilingual impacts a student’s overall performance in school. James Paul Gee accurately describes how important one’s environment is to understanding the language and their communication skills. Hakuta and Garcia accurately describe both sides of how being a bilingual student can help a student’s test scores while also explaining the other side of how difficult it is for students at a young age to switch from one language to another. As a bilingual student, bilingualism made me the person I am today with my mispronunciation to simple code mixing. I value my knowledge of both Polish and English.

Work Cited

Gee, James Paul. “What Is Literacy.” Journal of Education, Volume 171, 1989, pp. 18–25

Hakuta, Kenji, and Eugene E. Garcia. “Bilingualism and Education.” APA PsycNet, 1989,

Meisel, Jürgen M. “CODE-SWITCHING IN YOUNG BILINGUAL CHILDREN: The Acquisition of Grammatical Constraints.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, vol. 16, no. 4, 1994, pp. 413–439. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.

Nicoladis, E., and F. Genesee. “Language Development in Preschool…” ERA, 1 Jan. 1997,

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