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.