'Impostor syndrome' is an increasingly common experience where people doubt their own skills, or accomplishments and have a fear of being exposed as a fraud who can’t live up to the expectations of other people. Many of us who enter academia as PhD researchers soon discover the concept of imposter syndrome. When I came across imposter syndrome as a concept, I had finally named the phenomenon that I have experienced my whole life: that terrible feeling when I tried to use the language of my parents.

I don’t really know what happened. My brother, who is 5 ½ years older than me can seamlessly pull off a conversation in Polish. So why was it just me? All my cousins can speak Polish. Even though some of them were born and raised in the United States, just like me, they can speak Polish without a hitch. So why just me?

Is it my fault? Or is it my parents’ fault?

Clearly, my parents spoke Polish to their first child. But when he struggled with English at primary school and had to be enrolled in the ESL program, they were faced with the sad misconception that my brother’s bilingualism was a problem. They were determined not to make the same 'mistake' with their second child. They would ensure that she was prepared to be successful in an English-speaking world.

And it worked, in one respect at least. I excelled at English reading and language arts from a young age. But when I was about 11 years old, my parents had the brilliant idea of re-enrolling me in a Saturday morning Polish school, something I had not attended since age 5. There was a 3-year age difference between me and the rest of the class, given the huge gap in my formal Polish learning. When I was called on to read aloud or a to answer a question, the other students laughed at my slowness and haltering speech.

Matters were no better when I made an effort at home. I remember an occasion on the phone with my aunt. When she asked what I was doing, in Polish, I made an attempt to answer back in Polish. I used a term I had heard my parents use, a term borrowed from English and turned into improper Polish around the house. The term was ‘homeworki.’ My brother had overheard my attempt and after hanging up the phone he pointed out my error. And not in a nice way. In a berating, older brother sort of way. It seemed that wherever I tried, I was only met with negative reactions. I decided then that it was better to keep quiet than to try at all.

Fast forward to adulthood. I’m 30 years old and I currently take Polish evening classes at elementary level. I feel good about it. I’m more comfortable trying out my Polish with strangers than with family.

I know now that what I attempted to do at age 11 was a form of ‘translanguaging’ and I also know that translanguaging (creatively mixing languages) is now positively viewed by many educators working with bilingualism.

When I think about the psychological effects that my experiences as a child have had on my self-confidence, sense of identity and belonging, my relationship with my mother, which was always constrained by a language barrier…well, I think hey, this would be a great research topic!

Is there anyone else out there like me? Have you had a similar experience of growing up semi-bilingual but feeling like an imposter in the language of your own cultural heritage? I would love to know.

Further reading

'Great Idea: Translanguaging' - The Bell Foundation

'Life without your Mother Tongue' by Kim Koelmeyer - SBS Media

'Even if you’ve forgotten the language you spoke as a child, it still stays with you' - Quartz