Forgetting my First Language
September 4, 2021 1:54 AM   Subscribe

No one prepared me for the heartbreak of losing my first language. It doesn’t feel like the sudden, sharp pain of losing someone you love, but rather a dull ache that builds slowly until it becomes a part of you. My first language, Cantonese, is the only one I share with my parents, and, as it slips from my memory, I also lose my ability to communicate with them. When I tell people this, their eyes tend to grow wide with disbelief, as if it’s so absurd that I must be joking. “They can’t speak English?” they ask. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer.
posted by automatronic (33 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for posting this. It really resonated with me. My parents both speak English, but my grandparents' command was more variable, and I struggled to communicate with them my whole life. English is my second language, which I learned at preschool and at play, but functionally it's my first -- the one in which I'm most confidant and comfortable, the one in which I dream.

For me, at least, the knife cut both ways: when I was about 6, my older cousin made fun of my American accent when speaking Marathi. Of course, he had a (very strong) Marathi accent when speaking English, but I didn't hear that, because all I heard was the mockery, and I stopped speaking it. For decades.

At the time, too, there was this strong assimilationist drive in education. Only English at home! Being bilingual is confusing for children and worsens school performance! And because my parents had themselves gone to English-medium schools in India, and worked in an "international" but really English-first sector, it was easy enough to follow those "rules."

So now my conversations are in a pattern that is probably familiar to many children of immigrants: they say things in one language, child answer in English. I cling to very basic, 2-year-old vocabulary: I'm hungry. I'm sleepy. Let's go outside.

I will have to look into these translation apps.
posted by basalganglia at 3:33 AM on September 4, 2021 [18 favorites]

Language is use-it-or-lose-it, even for native speakers.
posted by torii hugger at 3:47 AM on September 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

I talk with my brother about how we are losing our first language, and even my parents increasingly are peppering English into our conversations. We never learned sophisticated (or more modern) vocabulary in our first language, so complex conversations about our work, medical care, or politics are increasingly in English, while conversations about food are always in our first language.

Languages are living, and they take diligent cultivation... It's not easy.
posted by larthegreat at 4:01 AM on September 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

My mother in law lost her languages in a sadly different way. She was Chinese, brought up in Shanghai, educated in Beijing, married a Czech and moved to Prague, later to England where she died. Her first language was Shanghainese, her second Mandarin, her third and fourth Czech and English. English was the family language. Dementia unpeeled her languages, layer by layer, like a big old onion. English went first, then Czech and with it her ability to communicate with her husband and children. Mandarin was solid, it looked like she'd hit bed rock for a time then that went, til only Shanghainese was left. That came and went, well it was crumbling but still in use (if you can call it that - not a lot of Shanghainese spoken in a mining village in Yorkshire) when she passed away. The process took 20 years.

My wife is also a linguistic onion. She doesn't know I know but she is already following in the footsteps of her dear old Mum. She is the same age as was MIL when it started. Early days yet.... but her English is creaking and the same slow decline has begun. Lord knows what her bed rock is and will be. Her Mum spoke Chinese to her as a child and she answered in Czech, her Dad spoke German to her and she replied in German. Russian at school. Czech on the streets. English from when she was 12. I am guessing I've got about a decade to learn Czech. I pick the books up off the shelves, (Das Kapital in Czech anyone? :)), turn the pages slowly, blindly, I look at my wife whom I love very much and wonder how it will be. She looks up and asks, "why do you keep looking at those old books? I know you don't understand a word. You are funny. " I guess I am. Anyway it's good to laugh, sometimes it's all you've got apart from a decent dictionary and a Cesky grammar of course!
posted by dutchrick at 5:25 AM on September 4, 2021 [103 favorites]

I became furious that my parents weren’t bilingual, too. If they valued English so much and knew how necessary it was in this country, why didn’t they do whatever it took to learn it?
That passage reminded me of something that happened to me yesterday. I had to help a tiny elderly Asian lady get where she was going because all the buses were re-routed (floods, festival, Philadelphia) so by the time she realized something had gone wrong, she was a mile farther north than she was supposed to be. She had her bus pass and her vaccination record on her, and that was it. She spoke no English, and I ended up getting off my bus with her, walking her to another bus stop, and finally helping her call her somewhat bilingual daughter-in-law on my phone so she would consent to get on the new bus with me to get back to where she was going because she quite rightly didn't trust me completely.

On the whole, everyone on both buses was really supportive. However, on the second bus, someone remarked "Why do they let her take the bus?"

I'm still thinking about that remark, and the implication that she was incompetent. That woman had lived a whole life, raised at least one child, and moved to another country where she was normally able to get around in spite of not speaking the language. I'm not sure I could do that.
posted by Peach at 6:07 AM on September 4, 2021 [40 favorites]

dutchrick, that's a fear I have regarding myself. English is the language I communicate best in, but sometimes, when I'm really tired, the language I learned at birth bubbles up between the fatigue cracks and surprises the hell out of me. I sometimes wonder if my future holds something like your MIL's last years did.
posted by tigrrrlily at 6:30 AM on September 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

As German-from-Russia immigrants, my grandparents on my mother's side spoke Plattdeutsch and slowly learned English. My mother spoke only Plattdeutsch until kindergarden at age 5. I only learned that fact in my twenties; she had completely assimilated and lost her first language as a young woman. Everything was English in the family home. That language is lost to me now; I never had it, and there is no practical way to learn it, nor no need in my current life.

I grew up in Southern California, in a small town that was at least 40% Mexican or Mexican American. (At that time, almost no immigrants from other parts of Latin America...) I took Spanish language lessons through junior high school and high school. I was monolingual (as were most of my Anglo friends.) The only bilingual people I knew spoke Spanish at home, and English at school. We had no immersion programs; new kids from Mexico just joined a class and sat there, uncomprehending, until they somehow picked up enough fluency.

Now, much, much later in life, I volunteer at San Francisco Airport and at Alcatraz. I'm slowly learning enough Spanish to help some people. ("I live in the present, because I don't know the past tenses of verbs.") I can see that I need to spend more time with Spanish language apps and I need to consider classes. The translation apps are a godsend, especially when communicating with rare language groups. I've helped people who only spoke Mongolian, or Ukranian, using Google Translate.

Language fluency without constant contact in that language is very difficult.
posted by blob at 6:41 AM on September 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

The mother of a friend of mine spent her childhood in Hungary, her adolescence in Germany and has lived for fifty years in English Canada. I asked her once which language she feels most at ease in and she confessed that none of them feels totally comfortable for her.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:56 AM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have no fear of losing my language, but I worry about my son. He is fluent, but we speak overwhelmingly English at home. He speaks Spanish with grandmas. We don't speak Spanish at home as much both because I am most comfortable in English and because he doesn't like me to speak Spanish. He only wants to speak Spanish with other people.

My hope here is heritage language to solidify his mastery. When I was kid, in Toronto, heritage language was (I say now, based on my what I saw as a kid) fantastic. My elementary school had Portuguese and Italian and for various reasons I sat through 5 years of daily portuguese classes and took Italian from Grade 3-5 (I'm not Italian, but my grade 3 teacher basically said to my mom "More languages = good!"). There was obviously a solid curriculum with units about different aspects of culture. Kids learned to read and write in those languages (with lesson plans similar to what we were using to learn to read in English). When I was in high school there were kids who when we started Grade 9 already had high school credits for Grades 9-12 in Italian and Croatian. I remember when I started high school and felt like I was in awe of the variety of courses available and when I found out you could get credits in Croatian that was kind of like the cherry on my Buffet-Of-Knowledge worldview (quickly faded when I actually started taking courses).

Anyway, I'm hearing that heritage language instruction is garbage now. Most of the people teaching it aren't actually teachers. They classes are mixed-grade with 3 grades in a class (making it much harder to have a structured curriculum going topic to topic and some sort of cumulative system). The teachers are just leading activities, hopefully in the language, but not necessarily. One parent told me their kid in Spanish class was given math worksheets to do. The worksheets had instructions in portuguese.

Yeah, so this could be my son one day and I don't know how to stop it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:56 AM on September 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

As a monolingual person, I never thought much about language until my family member had parkinsons and started to lose their ability to speak and communicate.

We went from having lively debates to smiling at each other and holding up things such as a glass of water.

I find the article very sad bc the author cannot communicate basic things with her own parents who are very much able to converse, but in a different language.
posted by AugustWest at 6:57 AM on September 4, 2021

This is happening to me, my fluency in Kannada has deteriorated so much over the years that I struggle to remember even basic things like names of colours. It’s especially ironic since I like learning languages.
posted by dhruva at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I posted this because I found it really interesting and something I'd not seen talked about before. I have no particular resonance myself with the experience described, as I'm almost completely monolingual.

But it did make me think a lot about my grandfather, whose first language was Welsh. That was what he grew up speaking at home, but he was punished if he was caught speaking anything but English at school; education in Wales was subject to a long history of aggressive anglicisation, and the language was still stigmatised.

He was still young when he was sent to live in London during the war, and he ended up marrying an English woman and settling there.

He never tried to pass on his Welsh to his children, having grown up seeing it as something to be ashamed of. Decades later my mother expressed that she wished she'd been able to learn it from him, and he said he came to regret not having tried.

I barely ever heard him speak any Welsh, even around older relatives when they visited, although sometimes when something disgusted him he would exclaim ych a fi (ugh), and perhaps some ruder things that we never understood.

I wonder now, after reading this, whether he might actually have already lost some of the language himself by the time I knew him.
posted by automatronic at 8:07 AM on September 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

"I live in the present, because I don't know the past tenses of verbs."

Heh. I’d never heard that one, but it describes my daily linguistic life really well right now.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:43 AM on September 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

I lost my ability to write Chinese a while back. Fortunately, I can still read and speak both Mandarin and Cantonese adequately. My sister, born many years after me, barely speaks Mandarin.

With signs of China erasing Cantonese from schools, Cantonese itself may be a dying language.
posted by kschang at 9:16 AM on September 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

A childhood friend and his parents immigrated from Poland, speaking no English, when he was around seven. He wound up being two years older than his classmates because the school recommended that he enroll in first grade, where most pupils were six, and then repeat it because his English was deemed insufficient.

This situation so shamed his family that an English-only rule was instigated. But while my friend's father picked up English fairly easily, his mother never learned the language. My friend forgot his Polish as did his younger sister. By high school, neither could communicate with their mother unless the father was around to translate. Sadly, the father died when my friend was in his early twenties and just starting graduate school en route to, as it happens, becoming an English professor. By the time his mother died it had been 35-ish years since they could communicate with each other much at all.

It was only after having children that my friend appreciated his mother's sacrifice.
posted by carmicha at 9:33 AM on September 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Thanks everyone for this thread. I'm from an immigrant family with lots of different languages, and I really appreciate all your stories.

My great-aunt Dora lost everything and became a refugee twice in her life, once as a child and once in her 30s. When I first met her, she was a tough and lively 70-year-old who could make jokes and have arguments in 7 different languages.

When I saw her again 15 years later, she had lost all her languages except for Polish, the very first language she spoke. She only grew up in Polish until she was 8, and had never spoken it in her life afterwards. None of her children understood Polish, and so one of her sons, very religious and traditional, forced his 18-year-old daughter to quit her studies and learn to speak Polish just to take care of her grandmother. Dora seemed happy enough, still smoking her cigar like she always did and laughing when everyone else laughed even if she didn't understand why anymore.

My mother first grew up speaking French, and then went to elementary school in Spanish as a refugee in Cuba. When she arrived in the US at age 9 her mother said to her, "Now we're in the US, so we're only going to speak English from now on." Her mother never spoke very good English, but from that point on, that was the only way they ever communicated. My grandfather barely spoke any English at all, and so my mother barely had any kind of relationship with him, and neither did I. Today my mother can't speak any Spanish or French. When she took me as a child to various countries to meet the other branches of the family, a lot of them spoke no English, and all we could do was make gestures and smile a lot. I have some nice memories of my great-grandmother and my great-uncle, but we were never able to exchange a word.

I'm an immigrant now. I spend my daily life speaking Spanish and Catalan, languages I didn't learn until my 40s. It seems normal to me, but on the rare occasions I get to speak English I can feel my mind relax, it's not at all the same kind of effort. As I get older, I wonder sometimes if one day I'll lose the ability to make that effort and either become isolated or have to find a way to go live the rest of my life in an English-speaking country.
posted by fuzz at 11:35 AM on September 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

My problem of trying to raise a bilingual kid is yet different... I try to speak Chinese with her as much as I can, (even though she speaks English back at me 95% of the time,) and this has led to deterioration of my own English speaking ability -- not drastic but certainly noticeable by myself when I talk to my husband who only knows English. During conversations beyond those concerning daily life, some words just stubbornly present themselves in Chinese even though I know their English counterpart well, especially if I've just read about the subject in Chinese recently. The switch gets stuck, as it were.
posted by of strange foe at 12:04 PM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

These accounts of people reverting back to childhood languages in old age make me think I should improve on my German, just in case. My partner's mother immigrated from Germany to the US in the 1940s when she was five, and has been speaking English for over 70 years.

But every now and again she has to deal with a German official, and they're astonished to find themselves speaking German with someone who sounds like a child who stepped out of a time capsule from wartime Berlin.

If she ever loses her English we are going to have an interesting time.
posted by automatronic at 12:44 PM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I spent my first eight years in Hong Kong, and then moved to Toronto, Canada. In my early twenties when I was in grad school in the US, my Cantonese was clearly deteriorating as I had very few friends who spoke Cantonese, unlike my years in Toronto. Somehow once I hit my thirties, even though I've been living in Portland where I literally have zero friends who speak Cantonese, my language skills have kind of stabilized. I am guessing it has to do with plasticity of the brain changing with age. Also, during grad school, I took a semester of relatively intense French, and found my Cantonese markedly improved in that time, with no other possible cause. Though I've been counting in English for years now, sometimes I wake up dream-speaking in Cantonese. Your stories of onion peeling in old age are very interesting and something for me to consider as my partner does not speak Cantonese...
posted by bread-eater at 1:02 PM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Dementia unpeeled her languages, layer by layer, like a big old onion.

This is a very powerful image/metaphor, don’t think I’ve ever come across this idea of one’s languages as literally layered before.

I wonder whether my own will devolve like that. I’ve undergone chameleonic language changes, but had the privilege of growing up in a context where the first language (German) was never abandoned at home, where the second (US English) was acquired late enough for the first to be pretty solidly grounded, and I had the chance to adapt it into passable UK English to avoid sticking out at university there, and my third (Italian) I grew into sentimentally/organically, without ever really having to abandon either of the other two.

So while I’ve been spared the trauma of disappearing language relations, and can only imagine what a slow, deep blow that must be (as often seen in the context of languages considered “inferior” in certain host countries…), and I tend not to experience a geology of my languages, I have had some linguistic cogs jam when tired or drunk, so… I am curious what shape my lingual ruins will take.
posted by progosk at 2:55 PM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I emigrated from Poland when I was seven, to a country where English is the lingua franca and there is no significant Polish minority. I am now in my thirties, and English is definitely my primary language. But I have always spoken to my parents in Polish -- they didn't buy into the idea that it would be "harder" for me to learn English if I kept speaking Polish at home, and I am immensely grateful for that.

I feel very fortunate that I can still speak Polish well enough that I can understand other people and understand what I read, but I definitely struggle to express myself and am very much aware that I am much less fluent than I am in English. This has never reached the point where I have been unable to convey complex ideas to my parents -- and they both speak English well enough that we could probably work around it -- but it does feel like trying to do something with one hand tied behind my back. I imagine that it would be more stressful for all of us if our conversations were more adversarial -- the most frustrating that it has ever been for me is during (friendly) debates about social issues, in which we all have a reduced vocabulary, because none of us are up to date on the latest terminology.

My Polish vocabulary improves temporarily whenever I immerse myself in the language -- whether it's by visiting the country or re-reading a long book series. I have recently found a weekly Polish-language podcast that I really like, and I can feel that it is helping me in a similar way. I hope that I can make it stick this time -- it's regular exposure which doesn't feel like a chore.
posted by confluency at 3:15 PM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

There's this belief that being monolingual is the natural default state of the human mind. Something we revert to in old age.

Unfortunately, pathological processes, like Alzheimer's, would not stop at being able to speak a single language, they keep going until you are no longer able to communicate at all.

Losing your language is not the default route as you grow old. There are millions of older people who speak and read multiple languages.

This is what I found more impactful from the article:

This didn’t actually work; instead, I felt a diminished sense of both identities.

I feel or I hope that at least in education circles speaking multiple languages is valued more than it used to.
posted by haemanu at 3:16 PM on September 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Losing your language is not the default route as you grow old.

I'd be interested to find research on this, particularly as in the case of the writer who appears to have switched to a new language fairly soon in her life.

The children in my father's family were never fluent in Slovenian but they knew enough to function in a Slovenian neighborhood with many Slovenian-only speakers. Sixty years later they barely remember anything.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:11 PM on September 4, 2021

Thank you for posting this. When I was around ten years old, I read a blurb of a movie (?) about a middle-aged Filipino American woman dealing with similar issues. I think the story was something about the difficulties the woman faced while caring for her elderly parents, but the detail that burned itself into my brain was that she could only remember the Tagalog word for salt, but not sugar. Even at that age I knew that my command of my mother's native language would never be rock solid, and it scared me to think of a future where we were unable to communicate at that basic level.
posted by mustard seeds at 9:20 PM on September 4, 2021

First, my directions were off. I started saying jau, which means “right,” when I meant to say zo, which means “left.”

A bittersweet smile at reading this because "jau" actually means "left", and "zo" means right in Cantonese.
posted by storybored at 9:33 PM on September 4, 2021

Losing your language is not the default route as you grow old. There are millions of older people who speak and read multiple languages.

That is my understanding too haemanu. Yes, it was dementia that unpeeled my mother in law's languages, just as it was dementia that stripped my monoglot Mum of her English and left her with not much more than yes and no. It is the early signs of dementia in my wife that prompted my concerns. My trilingual Father in Law was precise, fluent and articulate in German, Czech and English even at the end of his life.
posted by dutchrick at 1:43 AM on September 5, 2021

First, my directions were off. I started saying jau, which means “right,” when I meant to say zo, which means “left.”

A bittersweet smile at reading this because "jau" actually means "left", and "zo" means right in Cantonese..

This is obviously not the main point of the article, but I (admittedly a Mandarin and not a Cantonese speaker) am fairly certain the author is correct?

右 'right' is jau6 in Cantonese, yòu in Mandarin

左 'left' is zo2 in Cantonese, zuǒ in Mandarin
posted by andrewesque at 5:06 AM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

My grandfather lost a lot of his first language to aphasia, but his foreign languages were a blessing - if he couldn't find a word, it was usually available in English or Russian. So sometimes it goes the other way around.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 7:37 AM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thank you for all of the stories in this thread, and especially the person who told me they were an MB from Reedley (or environs) without telling me they were MB from Reedley (did your grandparents come from Molotschna or Chortiza or Gnadenau? And when my dad was growing up in Reedley he said there were some Armenians there too--this would have been the fifties and early sixties? Is that your memory too?)
posted by sy at 9:05 AM on September 5, 2021

I can speak Russian with my dad but I can't explain my job in Russian. I'm also not quick enough in Russian to be witty. When I was a teenager, I was forever asking my English-fluent mom to tell my English-rudimentary dad that I was funny. Often, when I try to make a joke in Russian to my dad, he tries to gently correct my misunderstanding of the situation.

My husband doesn't speak Russian, and I didn't have the discipline to only speak Russian with my older daughter, so she doesn't speak Russian either. I feel total despair. She will never speak Russian, and neither will the baby. My children will never be able to have real conversation with my father. He doesn't deserve that.

But how can I teach them to speak Russian when they are totally immersed in English? I work a long hours job, so often I only see them for a couple of hours in the morning. Even if I exclusively spoke Russian with them during that time, would that be enough for them to learn?

My own Russian is creaky and feels faded, but I know if I were immersed it would come back quickly. But these days, speaking to my dad is the only use I have for it, so it feels good enough.

It feels like a part of myself that is slowly dying. Like a plant that has been shoved in a dark closet, and is never watered. When I think about it, it makes me tremendously sad.
posted by prefpara at 9:18 AM on September 5, 2021 [7 favorites]

I grew up in Croatia but then moved to Slovenia for college. I've now been living in Slovenia longer than I have in Croatia. I'm bilingual in Croatian and Slovenian, as are my kids. I speak almost exclusively Croatian to my kids. I try to immerse them in Croatian, going as far as making monthly trips to Croatia to get books from the library and paying for VPN so we can watch Croatian TV. (I might be overdoing it a little, I admit.) All the while trying to escape the stigma of Croatian as a lower-class immigrants' language as it's perceived here...

My kids are completely fluent in Croatian, sometimes even helping me with words I can't remember, but I can't say it's easy - some days I don't even know what language I'm speaking anymore. (It doesn't help that they are both Slavic languages and somewhat similar!) I can feel myself get creaky in Croatian when I don't hear it or read it for a while. I used to be fluent in Italian but forgot it completely after just a couple of years without any contact with it. My first language was a dialect of Croatian that is even more similar to Slovenian, and I've already lost a lot of it - my mother sometimes corrects me, sometimes just looks at me funny... I switch to standard Croatian then.

But I hope this will be a gift to my kids. They are able to speak with their relatives. If they ever want to move to Croatia, they'll be able to do so without any problems. Their growing little brains will have so much more input than if they were monolingual. Based on some research, they have a lower probability for Alzheimer's. They have been aware of countries and languages being different, but people being same, from a young age.

My kid, 4 at the time, once told me: "The more languages you speak, the more friends you have!" Indeed.
posted by gakiko at 11:42 AM on September 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Not sure what to say except that I'm in this situation. We moved to the US from Italy when I was small and I learned English there. At some point after my brother was born the home language was English even if it was just my mom and I. Flights back used to be relatively expensive so we only went back every half decade or so. I don't think we ever expected to go back permanently. I'm back in Europe now but not in Italy...and it's confronting trying to speak to my grandparents when I really takes me a few days before I can switch into Italian.

I read Pachinko recently and there are quite a few passages that sorta talk to this. I've thought that it was the best book I'd read in the last year and I think, partially, it's because it articulated being in this half world.
posted by Spumante at 5:12 AM on September 6, 2021

I live in Belgium and I’m also in this situation, I understand my first language and can communicate, but I don’t feel the language. It’s not exactly slipping away from my memory…
posted by Tyche_G at 4:40 PM on September 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

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