Mother Tongue as a Second Language

Mother tongue as a second language

Growing up I often found myself feeling frustrated and mumbling to myself after conversations with my parents — I didn’t understand why. With time I realized where the tension stemmed, in our inability to truly understand one another. You see, my parents and I have a ‘common language’, but we have different first languages, they speak Vietnamese and I speak English. Our common language is a limited mash-up, ‘Viet-glish’.

I can chat with my parents, but it’s difficult to discuss, express, argue or have any form of deeper dialogue because I literally don’t have the words, or at least not the right words. Cue anxiety.

Expressing emotion or complex thought with one another? — Forget it, sometimes even the simplest of conversations are a challenge to get through.

So why don’t I just learn the right words? I’m trying, but it’s no walk in the park.

Knowing the direct translation of a word is one thing but it’s a whole different ball game to be able to use it correctly and comfortably and to express it in a cultural mindset that you claim by name and learned through interpretation. The challenge of speaking with Mama and Papa Nguyen has created an invisible yet very palpable barrier in our relationship.

I turned my anxiety-ridden self to Reddit for answers. Here’s a snippet of what I found:

Reddit thread
Reddit thread

As it turns out, I’m not alone in this.

In my search, I also came across an article summarizing a study done on the possible effects of parent-child language barriers. The study found that “children who lacked proficiency in a common language with their mother showed decreased self-control and increased aggression over time, compared with mother-child pairs who were proficient in the same language”. You can find the full summary here.

I began asking some friends who are also Asian Canadians born in Canada with immigrant parents whether they experience communication issues at home. Everyone had very similar stories to share and similar ways of navigating this parent-child relationship, they just deal with it and accept things as they are. Some common themes emerged:

  • Whatever cannot be expressed, is simply left unsaid.
  • Misunderstandings either fizzle out or are bottled up.
  • Disagreements can take years to settle after many deafeningly silent family dinners.

No one blamed their parents. In fact, almost everyone I spoke to pointed the finger at themself, wishing they had made more of an effort in their younger years to learn the language their parents tried to teach them.

So what are some ways families can begin to breakdown this communication barrier?

I reached out to Dr. Alex*, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist specializing in PTSD, depression and anxiety disorder for his take:

In my opinion, communication between parents and children, especially communication of love and attachment, has many facets. Common language is one aspect. But I think there may be many factors contributing to a potential disconnect in a parent child relationship in an immigrant family: eg. cultural expectations, socioeconomic factors, differences in life experiences. Immigration is stressful for families, and arguably parents and children have vastly different experiences of the immigration.

Certainly learning the language of our parents can be a helpful approach to improving relationships. But for some people it might not be possible to become fluent in a language you didn’t grow up immersed in. I hope that people who are reflecting on this can also explore other facets of relationships, eg. symbolic gestures/non-verbal communication, in which to bridge the disconnect between generations.

In my work, I certainly see many parent child relationships within the same culture, with the same language, with a lot of communication issues. Likewise, I see many parents and children who minimally speak the common language, who have loving relationships. I think a large aspect of successful parent child communication has to do with whether they’re a good match in terms of the way the parent or child is showing love and attachment, and how it is being perceived by the other.

*Dr. Alex is an alias for Vancouver-based practicing psychiatrist who has asked to remain anonymous.

So folks, there’s no easy way out of this one but there’s hope for me and others like me:) Keep trying to learn the language your parents speak, explore other facets of your relationship and nurture those forms of communication.

“In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

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