Losing your native language can lead to a cultural disconnect. PHOTO: SCOTT UMSTATTD

Sitting alone in the change room, the only thing I could hear was my heritage language flying around me. My teammates, people who I should be able to talk to and grow relationships with, seemed to be in a world completely separate from the one I was in. 

Going through the motions, warming up and sitting on the bench, I couldn’t communicate with anyone — which was detrimental when I was playing a team sport like soccer.

I was able to speak Spanish fluently when I was very young, as both of my parents spoke to me in the language. Both immigrants from Chile, it was very important to my parents and grandparents to instil elements of their home in the first Canadian member of the family.

I tell people I am Chilean, but only through blood. I have never been to Chile, nor do I even speak the language, even though both of my parents were born there. I feel the most Canadian when I am hanging out with fellow Chileans.

Losing my mother tongue has had a major impact on my life. I feel a disconnect with my family’s culture. Having meaningful conversations with family members who only speak Spanish is practically impossible. 

Children of immigrants losing their parents’ language is not exclusive to me. Second generation immigrants are more likely to lose their first language than to remain bilingual, according to a study by Claudio Toppelberg and Brian Collins that looked at language in immigrant children.

Rennie Lee, a researcher at the University of Queensland who specializes in the social sciences of immigration, says maintaining heritage languages as a child is hard, especially in Canada.

“It’s really hard and I can feel those tensions, the barriers that I’m up against.”

Rennie Lee, Researcher at the University of Queensland

“If their language of instruction, the kind of language they communicate with their friends, is in English, it’s really hard to maintain an immigrant language or their parents native tongue.”

Lee is a second generation immigrant herself and she is able to speak her heritage language of Cantonese. But passing on the language to the next generation has proven to be a struggle.

“I now have a son who’s three and I’m trying to speak Cantonese with him, but it is really challenging. Even I, as someone who’s studied this and really tried to preserve my parents language with him,” she says. 

“It’s really hard and I can feel those tensions, the barriers that I’m up against.”

Much like Lee, my parents are able to speak my heritage language. When I was old enough to go to school, I asked for them to speak to me in English to better fit in with my peers.

I have countless memories of people learning of my heritage and attempting to speak to me in Spanish, only for me to provide nothing but a confused face and a jaded apology for being monolingual. It pains me to see their excited face slowly fade, and in some cases, even turn into something that feels judgemental.

However, I do not feel any resentment towards my parents. How were they supposed to know? With navigating having children and balancing everything that it takes to provide for your child, language is something that seems to just fall through the cracks. Despite this, there are calls from Toppelberg and Collins in their research to treat bilingualism in a child with more importance.

Benefits of being bilingual

The study states, “Educational, clinical and family efforts to maintain and support the development of competence in the two languages of the dual language child, may prove rewarding in terms of long term wellbeing and mental health, educational and cognitive benefits.”

As I got older and prepared to enter an increasingly competitive job market, I could not help but feel that an opportunity was missed in my childhood to become fluent in Spanish. 

One study by Patricia Gandara on the economic value of bilingualism concluded that, “Employers increasingly prefer employees who can reach a wider client base and work collaboratively with colleagues across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines.”

Despite losing my ability to speak Spanish in early childhood, the foundations I established can help me in my attempt to relearn Spanish as an adult.

In a paper on childhood language memory in adult heritage language relearners, it says “Our findings indicate that very early childhood language memory (i.e., from the first year of life) remains accessible in adulthood even after a long period of disuse of the language.”

These findings inspire me to invest time into bettering myself and reclaiming what was lost at a young age. I am determined to find my culture and learn the language that has eluded me my entire life. I have decided to take Spanish language and hispanic culture as a minor, and I am currently enrolled in both Spanish language and Spanish culture classes at Mount Royal University.

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