Orphaned Tongues

Understanding the experience of first language attrition

Wendy Zhao,
Student Life Editor

A few months ago, I taught my parents a gesture known as the “finger heart.” To make it, you gently cross your thumb and index finger. Selfies featuring this gesture have become a staple of our text conversations, and I hoard a precious collection of screenshots that document this phenomenon: My dad finger-hearting while driving, my mom performing the pinch on the couch. In each photo, I respond with a proud heart-shaped token of my own, my amused grin in the photo’s corner.

As my fluency in Mandarin worsens, this unspoken sign, as silly as it seems, sometimes feels like a more effective bridge than language. Like a secret handshake I taught to them, a shared creation, its meaning feels specific to the space between me and them.

Since I grew up in Canada, my grasp of Mandarin has never been at the level of a native speaker’s. But using it with my family, taking nightly language lessons, and consistently watching Chinese dramas throughout my childhood meant the language always felt close to me. It held a comfortable place in my mouth.

During my first semester at McGill, however, apart from a few FaceTime calls with family, I didn’t speak Mandarin for months. I didn’t notice how much I had regressed until I visited home for winter break, when words for both mundane things and more complex emotions started to feel out of reach. Pauses punctuated my sentences as I spoke.

This unintentional forgetting, a common experience for immigrants, is known to linguists as first language attrition. The process typically occurs when a person is removed from their first language community, and then immersed in a community that uses a second language. Each time the second language is used, the brain has to suppress the first language, explained Debra Titone, the lab director of McGill’s Language and Multilingualism Lab, in an interview with the McGill Tribune.

“All these little cognitive events accumulate,” Titone said. “Like how the Colorado River, very slowly, drip by drip, created the Grand Canyon.”

For adult speakers who end up using a second dominant language, the symptoms of language loss are often subtle: Aspects of vocabulary, morphology, and syntax morph in small ways. But for those who lose access to their first language community at a young age, typically before the age of 12, the degree of loss can be greater—even totalizing.

Perhaps attrition is too strong a word, however. A 2014 study in the Montreal area examined the linguistic understanding of children who had been adopted from China at 12 months and exposed only to French afterwards. The adoptees showed the same brain activity as native speakers when they listened to pseudowords spoken in the four different tones of Mandarin, despite having no conscious comprehension of the language. Even before our coherent understanding of it, it seems that our mother tongue imprints itself on our minds.

Each individual’s experience with language attrition ultimately depends on the access they still have to that second language community. Sometimes forgetting one’s mother tongue is a conscious rejection; a language can be tied to experiences of trauma, or so gendered that it feels inadequate for expressing one’s identity. In other cases, the loss is beyond one’s control, a matter of violence and survival, or an attempt at belonging. In the Canadian context, languages other than French and English are termed “heritage languages,” learned at home or in small communities, and as a consequence, tend to be more marginalized.

Ohontsakéhte Montour, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation, was fluent in his traditional language, Kanienʼkéha, throughout his childhood. He attended a Mohawk immersion elementary school and spoke Kanienʼkéha at home with his grandfather. But after Montour entered an English high school outside his community, he regressed to a novice level. Years later, Montour returned to the language through a two-year immersion program offered by the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KORLCC), a community centre with the goal of preserving Kanien’kehá:ka culture.

After graduating from the program in 2019, Montour felt reconnected with his ancestral histories and personal identity. The effect was profound.

"You learn a lot about yourself, it's almost like relearning,” Montour said. “It's difficult to explain [....] You feel more connected to your community as a whole, you feel more connected to your elders. You hear stories that maybe you wouldn't have heard if you don't speak the language.”

Language attrition can be especially complex for Indigenous Peoples, whose languages have been historically oppressed. Students in KORLCC’S immersion program include survivors of Indian Residential School and Indian Day School systems that sought to eradicate Indigenous languages. Many members of a younger generation, like Montour, recognize the importance of relearning the languages that were lost at these violent institutions. Many survivors are unable to pass on their languages to their children. Some have forgotten, while others struggle with feelings of shame when speaking their mother tongue.

Seeking spaces to engage with one’s native language demands time and effort, and the labour of maintaining these spaces often lands on the shoulders of community members. Heritage languages across Montreal are taught and kept alive side-by-side with community culture and history: Introductory Haitian Creole language classes can be taken at the KEPKAA, a non-profit organization promoting Creole culture in Montreal, while the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s new Rad Yiddish Song and Text Club meets on Zoom to connect with a language that once filled the Main. At McGill, different cultural groups invite students to use and hear their first languages, whether formally at events like Spanish and Coffee meetings and Arabic Dialect workshops, or casually among club members.

Though seeking out others in the diaspora is a lifeline for many immigrants, it is not a universal choice. In search of social and professional success, some immigrants neglect their native language and suppress its traces in favour of the prestige afforded by the dominant speech of their new home. The voice, with all its nuances and variances from person to person, archives and reveals intimate parts of our personal histories and identities—and also makes one vulnerable to a host of ingrained stereotypes, including assumptions about economic status, intelligence, and personality.

It’s no wonder that in fiction about migrant experiences, like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, ghost figures are often used as a common metaphor. There’s an urge to become in-tune with the sound of the crowd, to disguise one’s fleshly identifiers, sometimes to the point that it threatens self-erasure.

John Wayne dela Cruz, a Filipino immigrant and PhD student in language acquisition at McGill, remembers being policed by his management while working as a busboy in Alberta to stop speaking Tagalog with his co-workers in front of customers.

“Tagalog, it just comes so naturally, easily, but it made white clients uncomfortable,” dela Cruz said. “I can only imagine for many workplaces where there's such policies from the get-go. Some adult immigrants would construct this new identity at the company, like, ‘I'm a good English speaker, a French speaker,’ because [they] want to be perceived as more professional.”

Striving for assimilation often comes at the price of severing one’s closest relationships. When she was one year old, U3 Arts student Emaline Gonzalez moved to Montreal from Colombia. Before the age of three, Gonzalez spoke Spanish at home all the time, but once in Montreal, Gonzalez’s parents slowly stopped speaking the language to her, in the hopes of easing their daughter’s social experiences. As she grew older, she only encountered her mother tongue in brief stints through language classes and overhearing conversations between her parents and Colombian friends.

Over the years, Gonzalez felt an urgency to recover her childhood language. Before starting university, she spent six months in Colombia. For Gonzalez, Latin American culture and the Spanish language offered her the chance to express herself more confidently. A truer sense of self was finally able to surface.

“In English, I get in my head a lot and am always consciously aware of the amount of space I’m taking up and how that's affecting others around [me],” Gonzalez said. “But when I went to Colombia [...] everything was so loud and women were taking up so much space. There's something about [Spanish] that’s so driven by emotion and passion that the English language doesn't have.”

Though language is inextricably tied with culture, there’s no prerequisite or uniform way to connect with one’s cultural community and identity. Each individual’s trajectory with their mother tongue will be different, and while some will feel the need to return to the language, others will not. Looking back, Gonzalez doesn’t feel ashamed for not knowing Spanish earlier in life.

“I was never less Colombian, less Latina, just because I didn't know the language,” Gonzalez said. “You are always exactly who you are, with exactly where you come from. Your circumstances were different.”

Such sentiments don’t preclude deep feelings of disconnection. Some migrants feel especially disconnected within the home, where language barriers can lead to a profound sense of dislocation. Without a shared language between parent and child, the phrase “mother tongue” can feel paradoxical. Emotional barriers can arise when one or both parties struggle to find the right words. Researchers found that individuals speaking in a non-dominant tongue made more utilitarian decisions when confronted with the classic trolley problem, which essentially asks you to choose whether or not to kill one to save many. The linguists who conducted the study hypothesized that these speakers’ emotional responses were dampened from the cognitive effort it takes to retrieve the right words. As Ange Guo, a Montreal-born poet and second-generation Chinese immigrant experienced first-hand, language barriers can sever emotional intimacy with loved ones.

“I wasn’t doing well mentally for the longest time,” Guo explained. “But those weren’t things that I could explain at all [to my parents]. I don’t think I even knew how to say that I was sad, that I was not doing well. [It] made me into a very weird person.”

The first words out of Guo’s mouth were probably in Mandarin. But after growing up in Montreal, French is now the language through which she feels she can best express herself, and the one she uses in her poetry and prose. However, because Guo’s parents have not learned French, they communicate together mainly in English—simultaneously a point of connection and fracture in their relationship.

“English is a super cold language to me,” Guo said. “It’s like that bridge, but it doesn’t express fully any person’s side. Just like this transitory language. Universal language, right? Everybody calls it that.”

Writing has always seemed to me to allow for an articulation, as precise as one can get, of my most intimate thoughts. Guo told me it was difficult to accept that her parents would never read her work.

“I get it,” Guo said. “French is a stupid language that’s so hard to learn [...] but there’s also a part of me that’s just resentful. It’s like, you’ve been here 20 years, why don’t you speak my language, or send me to Chinese school? But I’ve accepted that they’ll never be able to [read me] and I think I’ve gotten closure on that [....] I know that they’re still proud of me just from their heart.”

Ultimately, Guo decided to move toward them. A couple of years ago, Guo started spending around an hour each day studying Mandarin herself. Though her fluency is not at the level of a native speaker’s, her parents now tell her stories and anecdotes she has never heard before.

In truth, language, even among native speakers, is faulty and imperfect. But broken communication is still of value. Even translation, despite its weaknesses, extends a bridge, like my parents’ finger heart selfies. When I was a kid and couldn’t correctly distinguish between the different Chinese pronunciations of “hot” (re) and “hungry” (e), my family would know to ask, ‘Sun or belly?’”

These days, when I FaceTime my parents, most of the conversation is filled by their voices. My answers to their questions are brief. When I try to describe something beyond the routine points—‘Have you eaten?’, ‘Been getting exercise?’ and ‘How is school?’—words will usually escape me. I’ll tense up, feeling lost and put on the spot, filled by a restless urgency.

But I’m making an effort to go beyond these questions. Even when I blunder, I cherish our mutual translation efforts. The time it takes to explain words and jokes and idioms no longer feels like a nuisance as it did when I was a kid—instead, it feels like an invitation to step further into each other’s worlds.

Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor