Lost Links For Children of Immigrants

I grew up speak­ing Can­tonese, and I remem­ber it was an adjust­ment for me to start speak­ing in Eng­lish when I went to school for the first time. In fact, I didn’t feel easy and com­fort­able with Eng­lish for a year or two even though I had been watch­ing Sesame Street and kids’ car­toons in Eng­lish well before then.

Yet, I must hon­estly say that my Can­tonese is only pass­able. It’s good enough for every­day fam­ily life because that is what I used it for as a child. As I grew up, as I learned more, as I began to rea­son bet­ter, my lan­guage of thought and speech became Eng­lish. Now as an adult, although I don’t need to do “men­tal trans­la­tion” when I speak in Can­tonese my vocab­u­lary in Can­tonese is limited.

It is, essen­tially, lim­ited to a child’s vocabulary.

That’s not entirely true. My breadth of under­stand­ing when lis­ten­ing to oth­ers speak in Can­tonese is pretty good… so long as it is casual, con­ver­sa­tional Can­tonese and not for­mal Can­tonese (which fol­lows the con­ven­tions of writ­ten Chi­nese rather than the col­lo­qui­alisms and slang of the spo­ken lan­guage). How­ever, when I speak, my vocab­u­lary is for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses lim­ited to a child’s vocab­u­lary. Per­haps a child of 10 years old or so, which is when I stopped using Can­tonese at home and began speak­ing in Eng­lish to my parents.

There is only so much depth that is pos­si­ble with a child’s vocabulary.

So what’s the problem?

In the con­text of what I want to share in this post, it cut me off from my grand­par­ents. None of my grand­par­ents spoke Eng­lish, and in fact my grand­par­ents on my father’s side spoke Can­tonese with a Tais­han accent (and its own very dis­tinct and some­times remark­ably dif­fer­ent pro­nun­ci­a­tions). If I were to speak with them, I had to do so in Cantonese.

Again, no prob­lems if it’s just the usual stuff of every­day life.

How­ever, as an adult now, I so wish that I could have learned more from my grand­par­ents while they were alive. I wish that I could have had real con­ver­sa­tions with them and that I could have learned from their expe­ri­ence and wisdom.

I can­not now, for they are no longer with us. Even if they were though, my cur­rent level of Can­tonese is insuf­fi­cient for a real, in-depth con­ver­sa­tion. It’s good enough for me to under­stand what some­one else, like one of my grand­par­ents, might say, but it cer­tainly isn’t good enough for me to probe and ques­tion intel­li­gently and productively.

It is dif­fi­cult for chil­dren of immi­grants to con­tinue devel­op­ing their pro­fi­ciency with their mother tongues all the way through their teenage and young adult years. They will most likely go into full-English mode and their knowl­edge and pro­fi­ciency with their mother tongues will stag­nate or even regress. The loss that results is there­fore one to do with a dis­con­ti­nu­ity of expe­ri­ence and wis­dom, where what one gen­er­a­tion has seen, heard, done, and learned is not passed on to their grand­chil­dren … and of course, every gen­er­a­tion thereafter.

I have no solu­tions to pro­pose for this. Par­ents can help their chil­dren to retain a base level of pro­fi­ciency in their ances­tral lan­guage, but because immi­grant chil­dren will become accus­tomed to using the local lan­guage as their main lan­guage to learn about more advanced top­ics, to dive into sub­jects in greater depth, and to for­mu­late com­plex thoughts and argu­ments. Immi­grant chil­dren will not be as pro­fi­cient with their ances­tral lan­guage as they will be with the local lan­guage, and that is the source of dis­con­nect between the immi­grant chil­dren and prior generations.

The desire to build suf­fi­cient lan­guage pro­fi­ciency to main­tain or strengthen that inter­gen­er­a­tional link must come from the chil­dren them­selves. How­ever, I think this desire most often comes after the chil­dren become adults them­selves, by which time the grand­par­ents may no longer be alive.

Excel­lence in any endeavor, and cer­tainly in life, comes from many fac­tors. A major one is from learn­ing from what oth­ers have seen, heard, done, and learned. Immi­grant chil­dren are always at risk of los­ing that fan­tas­tic resource.

3 responses

  1. One way to main­tain or improve your Can­tonese level is to by watch­ing Can­tonese speak­ing shows like news and drama series. I find by watch­ing tv series in Can­tonese and Man­darin help me improve my vocab­u­lary and under­stand­ing of the languages. =)

  2. Oh, the news is hor­ri­ble for me. I under­stand very lit­tle of what they say because they def­i­nitely do not use con­ver­sa­tional Can­tonese. I’m told that my dif­fi­culty there stems from the fact that they are speak­ing very for­mally, fol­low­ing how things are *writ­ten* — and hence any­one who is Chi­nese lit­er­ate would be able to fol­low along and those of us who are Chi­nese illit­er­ate but grew up speak­ing casual, con­ver­sa­tional Can­tonese are left scratch­ing our heads.

    Put it this way — Can­tonese news is like lis­ten­ing to a lec­ture from a Finance pro­fes­sor when all you’ve ever had is speak­ing Eng­lish in pri­mary school and can’t read English.

    And I’d like to watch Can­tonese *or* Man­darin TV … if they ever frickin’ make an action or sci-fi TV series! They’re all dra­mas or sit­coms from what I can tell. In fact, I’ve been try­ing to find Chi­nese ver­sions of sci-fi books like Robert Heinlein’s Star­ship Troop­ers, the Star Wars orig­i­nal tril­ogy nov­el­iza­tion, or any­thing like that which I’ve already read or could read in English.

    So… that brings me to the equally-serious ques­tion: what’s with the absolute dearth of sci-fi in Chi­nese? Is it a cul­tural thing?

  3. Hey Len, very inter­est­ing post. I’d say you’re lucky that you’ve got that far. My parent’s first lan­guages were dif­fer­ent, and they immi­grated at a younger age than yours too, I guess, both either side of around 10–12. And so I didn’t grow up with more than a lit­tle famil­iar­ity with any lan­guage other than Eng­lish. My grand­par­ents, of course, who had many tales to tell, would have done much bet­ter in their first lan­guages, or even some­times in their 2nd lan­guages ahead of Eng­lish. I sup­pose we have no con­cep­tion of some of this grow­ing up, but you do see how it’s influ­enced you and your per­cep­tions after.

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