Lost in translation
Grandchild of an immigrant? Chances are you can't speak your heritage language. Teacher Yollanda Zhang on how the pressure to assimilate ties our tongues
As a child, Janaa Henley was embarrassed – even fearful – to speak Tamil in front of her friends and schoolmates. After moving to Canada from Sri Lanka in the late 1980s at the age of 7, she tried to assimilate as quickly as possible.
"When I was young, I didn't want to stand out speaking a totally different language in front of my Western friends and schoolmates and risk getting picked on," says Henley, who lives in Toronto.
Her family ended up in a pattern familiar to many immigrants: parents who speak in their native language to children who respond mostly in English.
Now 37 and married to an English-speaking Canadian, Henley has lost much of her first language. She used to win Tamil essay contests in Sri Lanka, but now can only converse in fragmented sentences sprinkled with English. While she cherishes the language as a part of her heritage, she fears her sons, ages 4 and 2, will never really learn it.
"If I speak to them in Tamil, the response is always English," she says, though her older son enjoys going to weekly Tamil language classes at their local school. Her parents speak English, not Tamil, to her sons during their weekly visit. They prefer to maximize their time with their grandchildren by conversing with them in English instead of teaching them Tamil.
Henley's story is not uncommon: Research shows most Canadian immigrants will lose their heritage language by the third generation or earlier. Many people can pinpoint a significant loss that starts shortly after children begin school, where they are rapidly exposed to English and want to fit in with new friends.
As those of us who grew up in immigrant households can attest, this loss of heritage language can also lead to a loss of connection with family history and culture – how do you learn about your grandparents' lives back home when you can't even hold a conversation with them? I wanted my daughter to be able to speak to my parents and my family in China. So, in 2015, I put my job as a high-school teacher on hold to start a Mandarin school. I don't just want her to have language skills – I want her to have confidence, and pride, in her abilities and her heritage.
One of the ways to preserve heritage languages is through schools. But in Ontario, for example, the Education Act restricts the use of languages other than English or French for instruction in publicly funded schools. "Ontario's language education restrictions are an international embarrassment," says Dr. Jim Cummins, a researcher in bilingual education and professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
"We have fallen far behind the United States, which has implemented an increasing number of bilingual and immersion programs involving not just Spanish, but also Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, French, Portuguese and other languages."
I remember kids making fun of my Chinese name, Yu, shouting "Hey you!" at me. Even though I'm an extrovert by nature, my mother recalls that I didn't speak in school for more than six months (which I've since learned is a common "silent period" for people learning a new language) because students were only allowed to speak English. When I finally started speaking in class, my teacher told my mother how much I actually liked to talk and participate.
I did manage to retain the language, thanks to my love of reading, my parents' insistence on only speaking Mandarin at home and lessons in basic Cantonese at Saturday school (there weren't many Mandarin classes available). But even now, sometimes I find myself uncomfortable when I speak Mandarin in public. Several people of various ethnicities have related the same unease to me.
The pressure to assimilate is part of why my husband, Bryan, can no longer speak or understand much of his heritage language, Cantonese. When he was growing up in North York, the conversation at his family dinners was largely in English; his grandparents would sit in silence or only speak with their children. No one really questioned this or tried to change it. It was just accepted as the way things were with his generation.
My husband's language loss never upset me much before the birth of our daughter four years ago, when I realized that it was not enough to simply speak to her in Mandarin on a regular basis. I needed a whole support system around her that includes family, friends and our neighbourhood school.
Research shows that immersion programs in public schools go a long way toward ensuring heritage language retention. This is something Alberta has excelled in: For the past 34 years, an increasing number of schools have offered immersion programs, where subjects are taught in either English or Mandarin or both languages combined, beginning in kindergarten or Grade 1. Other languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, German and Spanish are also used in immersion programs.
Almost half of the U.S. states have implemented the Seal of Biliteracy, which gives high-school credits for oral and written competence in languages other than English, whether or not students take formal classes. California just passed Proposition 58, which allows non-English languages to be used as immersion languages: Mathematics, music and arts can be taught in any language other than English.
In Ontario, the 2011 census found that after English, the top four non-official languages spoken in the province are Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish. Thanks to work by organizations such as Ontario Multilingual Education (a grassroots group of educators and parents, where I'm on the planning committee), the Toronto District School Board made a formal request to the Ministry of Education earlier this year for approval to start a Mandarin-English bilingual program. But the request was denied in May.
None of our neighbourhood schools offer Mandarin programming, so my daughter attends the local public school where my Mandarin language program runs after school. In a small way, this is a good solution, allowing her to make diverse friends she wouldn't otherwise meet while fostering her own interest in Mandarin.
I want her to feel that it's okay – even celebrated – to speak as many languages as possible. I'm hoping that with a community of interested Mandarin learners around her, my daughter will never feel embarrassed like I did.