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Opinion: 2nd-generation immigrants must not be shamed for inability to speak heritage language

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations director)

By Kurtis Yan

March 3, 2022 6:59 p.m.

This post was updated March 14 at 6:43 p.m.

It can be easy to generalize the experiences of second-generation immigrants in the United States.

However, everyone’s upbringing is unique, and immigrant families vary greatly in how they balance the cultures of their homeland and new homes.

In an increasingly integrated world, the loss of heritage language in immigrant families is an important area of study. Retention of heritage language considerably differs along racial and ethnic lines. When asked whether they could speak their heritage language “at least pretty well,” about 8 in 10 second-generation Hispanic Americans agreed, while only 4 in 10 second-generation Asian Americans agreed, according to a Pew Research Center study.

This trend was brought to the forefront during this year’s Winter Olympic Games, when Chinese social media users left scathing remarks about figure skater Zhu Yi, a former American citizen who changed her citizenship and competed for China, for her inability to proficiently communicate in Mandarin.

As the son of first-generation immigrants, Yi’s story made me reflect on my own life. In high school, a Chinese American former friend told me that I wasn’tChinese because I couldn’t speak my heritage language, Cantonese.

Statements like those are revealing. Far too often, second-generation immigrants have felt shame and regret for being too unfamiliar with their heritage languages –myself included. In the end, however, no one should feel ashamed or scrutinized for this, especially since the familial immigrant experience can differ so much for so many reasons.

First-generation immigrants are navigating life in the U.S. for the first time while simultaneously considering how and whether they will maintain a connection to their cultural roots. For many parents, adequately responding to the pressures of raising children in a society that doesn’t speak their heritage language can be a major challenge.

My parents stopped speaking in Cantonese to me and my older sister primarily because of early educational concerns. Apparently, my sister’s day care instructors thought that her refusal to speak was connected to my family’s use of another language at home. In hindsight, it seems obvious that pressures to assimilate and the stigma surrounding the inability to speak English manufactured this assumption.

When I discussed this with my mother, Sauman Chu, she said the instructors had a specialist meet with her about my sister’s timidity.

As a result, my family decided to prioritize our English language skills. It is impossible to say how my educational development would have been different had I learned Cantonese.

All I know is that I am where I am today because of everything my parents did for me.

On the flip side, second-generation immigrants may be encouraged to learn their heritage language through immersion programs and bilingual schooling. Keila Kimura, a third-year biology student, said she enjoyed her experience in Japanese elementary schooling.

However, the benefits of immersion-style learning can vary.

Asako Hayashi Takakura, a lecturer of Japanese language in the UCLA Asian languages and cultures department, said weekend schooling can be difficult for kids to fully engage in as they miss out on typical leisure activities.

Yet another complicating factor is that many second-generation immigrants serve as translators for their parents. But if the parents are adequately proficient in the dominant language, then it may be far less pressing for their children to learn the heritage language themselves.

My parents emigrated from Hong Kong, where approximately 46% of the population speaks English because the region’s colonial history. Thus, my parents had a good enough understanding of English that they didn’t need my sister and me to fulfill that role.

Because of the diverse and complex factors that can influence a caretaker’s decision to teach their child their heritage language, it is unreasonable to make gross generalizations or ubiquitously point to phenomena like “whitewashing” or “minority self-hatred.” Instead, we should understand that everyone comes from different backgrounds with varying pressures to learn their heritage languages.

Of course, dealing with feelings of insecurity and regret in a productive manner is no easy task. It’s difficult to not think of all the instances when I wish I had grown up speaking Cantonese.

Personally speaking, much of my regret stems from being unable to speak with my grandparents. I hope to see my gung gung – the Cantonese term for “grandfather” – again in Hong Kong, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t been able to for nearly four years. With his age, health and status as my last living grandparent, visiting and connecting with him feels like an increasingly pressing matter.

Thanks to my parents, I can recite small phrases in Cantonese, and I always enjoy seeing my gung gung’s reaction to my countless pronunciation errors. Now, I just want to try to speak to him a little more in his language so I can better show my appreciation for everything he’s done.

It is pointless to continue regretting that I didn’t learn Cantonese earlier, but I would regret losing the opportunity to have an authentic moment with a loved one.

For others at UCLA who do want to learn their heritage language, it’s not too late. The university offers a number of resources to learn heritage languages, such as the National Heritage Language Resource Center, which offers special curricula and resources to help students learn their mother tongue.

Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at UCLA, highlighted Asian American Studies 97: “Medical Terminology Translation Project for Vietnamese Language Learners,” a class that allows students to combine their interests in public health with serving the Vietnamese community.

“I think just having that community of heritage learners who are also kind of grappling with the same questions or challenges and having everyone support each other … is really important,” Gandhi said.

Heritage languages are a subject that deserves to be approached with nuance and understanding.

No second-generation immigrant should feel at fault for their lack of language proficiency. No one is alone in wishing they could change the past, and it is not an easy process to constructively respond to both internal and external shame.

Above all, no second-generation immigrant should feel shame because their parents did what they thought was best.

If anything, they should feel proud of their parents for navigating how to best adapt to a country that has not always welcomed immigrants.

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