A lot of planting went on this last long weekend, including in my own garden and in my parents’. In the process, I ended up spending some time with a younger cousin, teaching her Italian words for the vegetables my mother was diligently preparing to sow. It was a moment that made me consider, and I consider it fairly often, how much I know and don’t know about communicating in Italian.

At home, my grandparents spoke almost entirely in Italian. My parents a mixture of English and Italian though I always answered in English. In grade school, my parents enrolled me in Saturday morning Italian school (I think I still have the workbooks somewhere). In high school I became uninterested in it all. In University, I took courses in Italian trying to gain it back. As a result I can understand Italian fluently, I have written 20 page essays in Italian but my pronunciation is limited so I don’t speak it except in single words here and there. I’m at a loss of how to fix this, or how it came to be, but I do intensely feel as though it mars my connection with my heritage. I’m apparently not alone in this thinking.

Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcasted an interesting show titled “Losing your Parents’ Language” that interviewed immigrants to Britain and their expanding generations about growing up with parents who have a different language, what it is like to have a language barrier within a family and those trying to keep languages alive.

One of the more interesting items in the piece is the poem “Mother Tongue” by poet Dean Atta. His mother, born in Britain from Greek parents, spoke to her parents in Greek but her children in English. The language barrier was tough on Dean, who often felt like an outsider when his grandparents were around or on trips to Greece. The poem repeats the idea that “our mother has swallowed her tongue.” Of his trips back to Greece with his family, Dean writes:

Made in England, we’re half this and half that
But they could more easily overlook that fact
If we could speak with our mother’s tongue
Not let our skin speak for us

What Dean’s poem and interview illustrate is something familiar to many of us Italian-Canadians: first generation immigrants (to say those who were born in the new country after their parent immigrated or those who immigrated at a very young age) tended to, and tend to now, function more in English than their mother tongue – and mix the two languages – as a matter of fitting in with the new culture. So, for Dean’s mother, she would answer her parents in English and speak with her siblings in English while her parents would only speak Greek.

As a result, the fluency of the language and the connection to it become lost. And as the interviewer points out, there is a loss of intimacy in family relationships because of it – when it is too hard to articulate in the parent tongue, you avoid speaking with parents or older generations on more complicated topics, topics hard to articulate. As a younger member of the family, you feel you are on the outside looking in.

In the interview, Dean’s mother also says that when you can’t properly articulate in your mother tongue, you can feel as though you are being judged by the older immigrants or those in your country of origin if you are visiting there, so you just try not to do it. I understand this sentiment, as I often felt in Saturday Italian school that if I wasn’t saying it right, it was just better not to say anything.

I do wonder now how second and third generation Italian-Canadians are raising their children with ties to language. I know very few below 35 that can speak Italian fluently. I also wonder if there is a desire to regain the language. The BBC piece also explores Bengali immigrants who started a language centre to retain their language, teaching their second generation kids, even though their parent’s generation believe it is a waste of time and effort. However the Bengalis woman interviewed insists that the language is a tie back to their culture, country and roots and she believes that “mother tongue is our heart.”

Do Italians feel the same? What about other immigrant groups? I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with language in the comments!


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