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Comics by Margaret Spencer.
No one packs a tighter suitcase than my mom. She’ll fit twice what I can into my moving boxes, with new space created for snacks (crumbly tea cakes, cured meats and stuffed crepes she taught me to call blini), plus a waffle iron.
I’ve often wondered about the source of her talent. Did she always have it, or was it teased out in the early 1990s, when she had to fold the rich life she shared with her husband and infant son in Minsk, Belarus, into two bags for processing in the United States?
The contents, as she remembers: all the clothing they could carry without help; sturdy pillows (at the request of family who had immigrated to the United States years earlier); any photos and documents they could keep from creasing, tucked into my mom’s music books; all my older brother’s toys; and a couple hundred dollars.
I would inherit my brother’s toys five years later, when I was born in St. Louis, and I’d throw tantrums into the pillows my parents carried across the Atlantic Ocean. My babbling would take on the dialectal quirks of the old country and baffle all the nice cashiers at the local grocery store.
And then, after a little more than two decades of English-language schooling, and despite my parents’ efforts at home, I would start to forget.
My Russian now is just passable. For a long time, I didn’t know what my mom thought of that. And how could I ask her? Which language was I supposed to use to gauge whether she was embarrassed by my grammar, or ashamed that I have forgotten how to have a conversation with my grandma?
This year, I decided to talk to friends from college in similar circumstances. Many of the other young women are like me, with parents who moved here from somewhere else, and who asked them to maintain at least some connection to the languages brought from a past life.
A lot of them felt the same way I did — if not ashamed, at least bothered by the barrier.
The way our conversations went informed how I decided to talk to my mom. When I finally do ask her why it was so important to her that my brothers and I learn Russian, she says that she and my dad decided to teach us so they could communicate to us the richness of life as they observed it.
“So when you would read literature or anything in Russian, it would be not just translation, but interpretation,” my mom explains.
For my family, my friends — Heran Mamo, Shoko Furukawa and Hala Ozgur — and their parents, our native languages are bound to something larger than us. There are expressions that don’t fully communicate certain ideas or emotions or experiences without speaking Russian, or Amharic, or Japanese or Arabic. There are generations of memories that can’t be inherited the right way. There’s a sense of self that’s not completely whole.
I’ve included their stories, along with interviews with their parents, to reconstruct what it was like for me to speak to my own mother about our relationships to the Russian language. Illustrator Margaret Spencer also depicted some of our experiences in comic form.
My younger brother is taking college-level classes in Russian. When my mom tells me about the weekly phone calls during which he practices with her the same way I did when I took those classes, I feel a distance I didn’t expect. There’s probably a Russian word for that.
When I call her next, I’ll ask.
When I interview Shoko Furukawa’s mom, Motokawa, Shoko is present. She is translating her mother’s Japanese so I can understand. That means it’s up to Shoko to synthesize all of the small worries her mom has for her future: that Shoko doesn’t have her Japanese honorifics down pat yet. That her candor and bluntness will be mistaken for disrespect in her office in Tokyo. That her handwriting — she scribbles her kanji like a child — would embarrass her, so thank goodness everyone just uses computers now.
These aren’t criticisms of her daughter — just observations of a reality made so by Shoko’s upbringing. Shoko was born in Japan but bounced around East and Southeast Asia until her teens. She eventually moved to the United States for college but just recently moved back to Tokyo, where her parents live. The international schools she attended in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan, though, prioritized practicing English during lessons and lunch periods.
“I started to feel a communication gap then, but it wasn’t very large,” she says.
In middle school, as her Japanese slowly fell behind her younger brother’s, Shoko was called out, often and in jest, for adopting Western speech patterns and favoring Disney Channel programs to more popular anime shows from back home.
When Shoko started taking fewer trips home from college in the United States, her dreams became a jumble of languages, dominated by English. She got used to substituting, during phone calls with her parents, misplaced Japanese words with English ones.
She says she could feel it during a brief internship in Japan — a sense that her supervisors, always polite, had put her into a box with the rest of the half-fluent students in her program. “There’s certain ways you have to speak to people who are more senior than you,” she says, “and I was always scared of offending them.”
Since she graduated and moved back to Tokyo for her new job, Shoko says her language skills have improved. Her mother, meanwhile, still teases her for her semi-formal Japanese during our call.
Heran Mamo has had a better-than-spotty relationship with Amharic, in part because her dad — previously a stay-at-home father — started teaching her how to speak and read the Ethiopian language before she even started preschool.
But early setbacks in elementary school compelled Heran’s parents to allow her to practice English at home, at the expense of her Amharic. The other Ethiopian kids she knew, she says, let their Amharic drop off completely to fit in better with their classmates at their predominantly white, private school.
It was weird the whole time, she says. She didn’t like how reliant she was becoming on her mother when she called her grandparents, or how other parents, during St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church services in Portland, Ore., talked about the kids whose language skills had lapsed.
Assimilation like that felt contrary to everything her parents had shared with her about their culture, which was splayed on the walls of their house — painted in yellows and brown and decorated with traditional crosses — and on the gold chain around her neck.
“Myself and my wife and her grandmother would tell stories about Ethiopia,” Mamo’s dad, Mamo Gebrehiwot, tells me. (In Ethiopia, it is common for children’s last names to be the first name of their fathers.)
Those stories paid off — in middle and high school, Heran doubled down on vocabulary. When her high school’s cultural celebration week coincided with Lent, Heran recited the Lord’s Prayer in Amharic over the building’s intercom. She wore a traditional ankle-length dress, called a habesha kemis, the entire week.
“We’re very proud of her,” her father says. “Without a doubt, she’s more American than Ethiopian. But when it comes to the language, the fact that she tries … that’s the difference between Heran and others.”
Over the years, Heran would keep trying to catch up after falling behind. She would learn, by tracing workbook pages, how to draw the 200-plus Amharic characters. She would surprise her whole family by giving a speech entirely in Amharic at her grandmother’s 80th birthday, right after her high school graduation. In college, she would also start adding translated captions to all of her social media posts. Heran says:
To hear Heran talk about her experiences, click here:
By the time Hala Ozgur was born in 2000, her family had decided only to speak English around the house.
Years before, Hala’s older brother was having trouble telling his mother, Iman, that he was upset.
“He came home one day and I could tell he was frustrated, and although Arabic is a very rich language and I speak it fluently, there are certain nuances I didn’t have and hadn’t taught him,” Iman says. “So he came in, clearly frustrated, and said, ‘I’m bothered, but more than bothered,’ in Arabic, because he couldn’t in English.”
They’d been living in Southern California since the early 1990s — Iman, her husband, who spoke English and Turkish, and her two sons, whom she raised with Arabic in the home. They had extended family in the area that could fully expose all of the kids to Arabic language and culture.
But when the family moved to Vermont so that Iman’s husband could attend medical school, the situation complicated.
“I had no Arabic-speaking people around me, no family who spoke around me,” Iman says.
That isolation — coupled with a consistent stream of frustration with her kids’ expressive abilities — tied her hands. She could not, she decided, raise her next child with such limitations.
When Hala was born, the family was back in California, and Iman and her husband dabbled in teaching Arabic to her. They enrolled her in first grade at a dual-language school, where she took basic classes in both languages. But when she transferred to an English-speaking middle school, Hala lost steam.
To hear Hala speak about her experiences, click here:
Initially, Hala says, it didn’t feel very distancing to forgo speaking Arabic at home.
“It felt like, for me at least, the cultural aspect was more than just a language,” Hala says. “It came from the food. It came from the traditions and from stories and holidays.” It lived in her hijab, she says, and her study of the Koran.
She doesn’t remember exactly when that feeling changed — but she does know that at some point, she started getting frustrated during conversations with her mom at the mall, when Hala couldn’t recall simple words such as “shirt” in Arabic.
After a visit to Egypt that left her longing for a greater connection to her family history and culture, Hala enrolled in Arabic classes. Her mom says she immediately noticed changes in how Hala could follow conversations with her extended family in their native language.
“Language is a gift,” Iman says. “I was handed a gift by my parents, and I was lucky to have been able to keep that. I wasn’t able to pass it on to my children, so I’m just excited that Hala’s going after it herself.”
I’m continuing to gather stories from dual-language learners. What’s encouraging is that some things carry over, no matter when you learned or what you lost. For instance, I asked several young people whether there are any words in their languages that don’t translate well into English.
To hear them talk about their experiences, click here:
But I’ve also found that these feelings aren’t confined to any particular age. Sofia Colon, for example, is in her 40s. She’s a third-generation Mexican American who never learned Spanish from her mother. Now, she’s trying to raise her five children with it.
“When I talk to other relatives and friends who have had the same experience, we all feel as proud as we can be of our culture,” Sofia says. “But not having the language makes us feel so different. We know we’re Latina, but when we’re tested, we can’t speak the language. We’re not fully a part of the culture.”
A lot of factors went into her learning late in life: discrimination her grandma faced when she was young and in school; her mom’s assumption that she’d get enough practice in school, and her mother’s decision to prioritize English around the house.
Sofia says the decision was a mistake that she won’t repeat with her kids. “I want them to have the fullness of their heritage,” she says. “Language was my missing piece, and I want them to have that.”
Rennie Svirnovskiy is an audio intern at The Washington Post.