My Mother's Tongue Is Not My Mother Tongue

Aug 13, 2018

Language is one of the first things you learn growing up, but when you’re a first or second generation immigrant, it’s hard. Balancing both English and your parents’ tongue usually results in the loss of one. For a lot of my friends, fluency starts to fade and becomes, as my friend Noor Abualhawa says, "Imkasar."

"That means broken and that’s basically how I explain it to anybody before I speak Arabic so that they're not expecting me to sound like they do," Abualhawa said.

When you're losing a language, you are losing much more than words and sentences and terms for things. You're losing a whole worldview. -Anna Luisa Daigneault

Abualhawa is one step from fluent in Arabic but she already has realized its impacts on her understanding of her culture.

"A lot of speech in Arabic involves God. That’s just how it is. It’s kind of like when something great happens to a person you say "Mabrook" which kind of just means blessings and you reply with "Allah ya barak feeky" or "Allah Barakfeek" and that just means 'May God place blessings onto you so'," she said. "So much of Arabic language is like that where it involves God, so if you’re talking to someone in Arabic you are connected not only through language but faith."

A door is opened when a language is learned. An identity is built when language is practiced. A sense of belonging is created, a belonging that no one can take away. Abualhawa recognizes that, in fact she is the embodiment of that.

“The one thing you can’t really westernize is language," Abualhawa said. "It just kind of is what it is, there’s no changing it. There’s no editing it to fit. There’s no assimilating language. Arabic language is the one thing that will always come from back home.”


A class of four- to six-year-olds learns Malayalam, a language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala, from their teacher Shadiyah Manadath on July 21. 2018.
Credit Emmanuel Tobe / WUNC

My ‘Home Away From Home’

At home, my family speaks Urdu and English. That’s because both my parents are originally from Pakistan and my mom wanted to make sure that I always had home away from home. In the mornings I would hear the echo of the Pakistani news channel and repeat it back to her mocking the fast pace Urdu language commentary. I learned Urdu through movies, music, and my mother, but teaching and passing on language is difficult.

Shadiya Manadath does exactly that.

On the weekends, she takes her dining table and shifts it into a classroom. Her friends’ children, ages 3 to 7, sit on the cushioned chairs and learn the language of Malayalam in hopes of preserving their culture.

“When my daughter was born, from that time onwards we were speaking our language and some of them [friends] said it’s not a good idea to speak mother tongue first because when they go to school it’s going to be tough for them,” Manadath explained.

She ignored what everyone told her and taught her daughter Malayalam first and foremost. She later proved everyone wrong when her daughter was the first in the class for English.

“That was one of the most special moments in my life,” she said with a smile that lights her whole face up.

Manadath told me she knows her son and daughter well. Malayalam influenced their personalities and they saw life through a different lens, something they wouldn’t have gotten if they were not bilingual.

Preservation is powerful, according to Anna Luisa Daigneault, who fell in love with languages and works to find those unique mother tongues and bring them to life again.

“Linguistic diversity on the planet is it’s eroding because of the impact of dominant languages,” Daigneault said.

Shadiyah Manadath regularly brings back books from India to help teach her students how to read.
Credit Emmanuel Tobe / WUNC

Daigneault is the program director for the Livings Tongue Institute for Endangered Languages, a group working to protect dying languages and promote the significance of it in itself.

“Language loss around the world is related to all of the other issues that we face that are challenges for our modern society -- urbanization, globalization, and all of these trends that are happening quickly,” Daigneault said.

There’s a back story to Daigneault’s wisdom. She once had her own struggle with language that gave her these realizations and pushed her passion for linguistics further.

“I remember one day I was at my grandmother’s house and she was speaking to me in Spanish, me and my brother," said Daigneault, whose family is originally from Peru. "We kept responding in English all the time, and I remember just catching myself. I was about 12 years old and I started to force myself to respond in Spanish.”

This tale is the case for many descendants of immigrants, by the time they realize it happening it’s too late to catch themselves like Daigneault did and they miss out on more than just knowing the language but the nuances within it.

“I think it’s a sad part of the immigrant story for a lot of people. It’s just a slow ebb and flow of languages that a lot of people don’t think of," she said. "They think 'Oh you must miss where you came from! You must miss your family!' But you also miss the reality of just communicating and having everyone understand you in that moment.”

That’s how language is beginning to feel for a lot of my friends. We are slowly but surely losing the links to our native countries, and with that comes the disconnection of family. My friend, Karishma Patel reflects on her own language loss with Gujarati.

“Like my grandma actually, she was telling me a story about how her earring [getting] pulled out or something that and she started laughing and stuff, and it was just me and her there and I couldn’t really understand what she was saying and I didn’t want to ask her to translate so I just started laughing too but I did feel like I wanted to know what was happening,” Patel said.

I understand where she’s coming from - when I’m home with my family, I’ll switch back to English when I can’t say something in Urdu. But I never want to lose my mother tongue and Daigneault understands.

“When you’re losing a language you are losing much more than words and sentences and terms for things. You’re losing a whole worldview. You’re losing a cultural treasure, a way of being, a way of encoding information, and a way of seeing yourself move through time and space. I mean, it sounds almost cosmic but it’s true.”

Creating this story I got the opportunity to reflect on my journey with language and write out my thoughts:

My mother’s tongue is not my mother tongue
she carried responsibility of passing language on
in the chubbiness of her cheeks
I understand her every “uff,”
Her sigh
It means so much more than a sigh
She is tired of the world in an “uff”
I feel the weight of the world, our culture pushed to the tip of our tongues
Our route of assimilation
I hope we do not get tongue tied.