It’s a common American story: Immigrants and refugees come to the United States, and within a generation or two, children no longer speak the language of their parents and grandparents.
The loss of a language comes with its own kind of grief. Sometimes grandparents are left literally unable to speak to their own grandchildren.
MPR News host Angela Davis explored the complex swirl of emotions around language loss, reasons for language attrition and efforts to ensure that more American children keep speaking the language of their elders.
As Star Tribune columnist Laura Yuen wrote in a recent column, the collective heartache over language attrition is felt by children and grandchildren of immigrants everywhere.
Yuen told Davis about being unable to speak the Mandarin or Cantonese of her immigrant parents.
“It’s this weird sense of shame that follows me even to this day,” Yuen said. “When I walk into a Chinese restaurant, I can exchange pleasantries, but not really much beyond that.”
The embarrassment of being unable to fluently speak a parent’s language was in display recently after Olympic gold medal gymnast Suni Lee was asked by a reporter to say something in Hmong to her Hmong audience. After stumbling through a phrase, Lee was later criticized on social media by some in the Hmong community.
“A lot of folks commented on her inability to speak Hmong, even questioning if she was Hmong,” said psychologist Ia Xiong, who wrote about Lee’s experience in a Facebook post that went viral. Xiong, who says she identified with Lee’s embarrassment, made the point that loss of language is not an individual’s fault. It’s the result of social pressure and historical trauma.
“What Ia has been able to do is speak directly to this generation and say, ‘the problem is not you,"‘ said Yuen. “We need to encourage our young people to have confidence. … We can’t keep shaming them. If the end goal is to farther fluency of our cultural language, then we need to be more positive about how we embrace young people for trying.”
Reasons for language loss are complex, said Jenna Cushing-Leubner, an assistant professor of world language education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“The history of language loss is really the history of the United States,” she said. It’s been experienced by Indigenous people, African language communities brought through enslavement and every subsequent wave of immigrants. “That actual physical freezing up when it comes to using your own family or heritage language, that’s really the embodied response of trauma experiences.”
Cushing-Leubner said acceptance is growing for multilingualism in the United States and more programs are being created to preserve and teach children the language of their elders, from preschool settings to universities.
“We also have different ways of doing ESL that are multilingual ways of learning English while also continuing to use and strengthen the home language at the same time,” said Cushing-Leubner. “There are powerful ways this is happening in pockets and it absolutely can be happening more.”
One of these programs is a new Somali elementary language program in Minneapolis Public Schools headed up by the district’s ESL and Somali heritage language facilitator Deqa Muhidin. Just a few weeks ago, Muhidin watched children learn how to say “Good morning” in Somali.
“Giving kids the opportunity to be able to hear speak and learn their heritage language only enhances their ability to succeed academically, and it strengthens their bonds with their families,” Muhidin said.
Laura Yuen is a columnist for the Star Tribune and former editor and reporter at MPR News.
Ia Xiong is a first-generation Hmong American and psychotherapist in private practice in the Twin Cities.
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