The quiet life of a minor language


Mika Drygas, Design Editor

There was a time in my early childhood when I could easily have been described as bilingual. My parents briefly committed to the one-parent-one-language system—my mother spoke only Japanese with me, and my father only English. As a child in Toronto, Japanese never took prominence in my everyday speech, but I do have memories of a time when my skill level in both languages ventured close enough to parity that I’d occasionally, and accidentally, mix Japanese words into an English sentence. I even had enough of a vocabulary to partake in speech contests at Japanese school. But I never gave the language much care. When my mom spoke to me in Japanese in my elementary schoolyard, I remember making a point of always responding in English, hoping to demonstrate my belonging in the largely monolingual, monocultural world of my white peers.

When asked if I spoke Japanese as a kid, my parents typically responded: “She understands it better than she speaks it” and “Usually she replies in English.” There was an ambiguity in these statements, a sense of incomplete bilingualism, that became irreparable as I grew to identify more and more with a separation from “full Japaneseness.” I stopped going to Japanese school when I was eight, and my vocabulary sank into latency as my English developed. In the back of my mind, I held onto the belief that if I really tried, I could still speak Japanese—I could still understand it, so how could I not? In my Montreal apartment last April, I tried using Japanese to think to myself and the severity of my regression hit me—I couldn’t dig up even the simplest of words. What had once been a choice had become a cemented truth.

Immigrant and mixed-heritage families can be susceptible to acculturation as their children embed themselves in their surrounding social environments. I contributed significantly to the quiet, yet drastic, waning of Japanese use in my household conversations over time. At a similar age, Lee Kim, BA ‘21, experienced a sudden insight regarding their family’s distancing from Cambodian culture and the Khmer language.

“It really clicked for me, I think once I moved out, so when I was like 18,” Lee told me in an interview. “And I would say I definitely took part in it too, in some way with my own internalized racism and wanting to be like, ‘normal’ and just doing more things that my other white classmates were doing.”

People like Lee and myself can be classified as heritage speakers: Individuals who grow up with a minority language spoken in the home but never reach a native speaker’s degree of fluency because they come to privilege the dominant language of their social setting. In cases such as mine, the evolution of the home environment can let one of the child’s first languages slip into passivity—capable of being received, but not used. When I hear Japanese, a distinct hum resonates in the innermost part of my brain—it feels as though the language is situated deep within me, so deep that I can’t actually reach it myself. If someone were to speak to me in Japanese, I would want to tell them, “I understand you in a way that feels so inexplicably precise and whole,” but all that I’d be able to come up with would be the outlines of a sentence, a sense of the intonation, words muffled just enough to be inaudible.

Dylan Seu, U2 Management, learned Korean first and English second, but now experiences a similar block when it comes to expressing himself verbally in Korean. “Right now, my Korean is at a point where, like, I can understand it fluently,” Dylan said. “I can read slowly. Writing, I can only do if things are spelled exactly how it sounds, you know? And speaking, for some reason, it doesn't really work.”

When you lose touch with a language as you grow up, your relationship to it is often defined by mutually reinforcing feelings of intimacy and distance. The vast dissonance between my passive and active grasp on Japanese renders me capable of absorbing it deeply while remaining undeniably detached from it. As a second-generation immigrant, I retain close ties with my mother’s home country, yet for most of my life have been unable to hold a conversation with the entire side of my family that still lives there. The lines connecting me to them feel unidirectional, riddled with inaction and guilt. It is this detachment, however, that keeps the language safely tucked away in an undisturbed pocket of my mind. Because my experience with Japanese was largely constrained to the context of my family home—and stayed behind in it as I grew into the world—the sound of the language is wrapped up in memories of my childhood, carrying with it the simple comfort of that time. This is a large part of what has drawn me back to learning it.

My lack of formal education in Japanese contributed to the comforting feeling it brings me. I was never made to memorize thousands of Kanji or stay up all night studying it—the language just floated softly around my ears, never asking that I give it much in return. But this also meant that I was an awkward fit for any level of language class because of the great disparities that existed between my listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Lavanya Huria, an MSc student at McGill, feels the same way about her heritage language.

“For Hindi, I can speak it because I speak it with my family. But I can't read or write [it],” Lavanya said. Because heritage speakers’ capacities are entirely shaped by their individualized home experiences, each has needs which cannot be easily met through resources designed for second-language learners.

Professor Tomoko Ikeda, who teaches several levels of Japanese language courses at McGill, explained to me that uneven competencies in different areas of the language, with reading and writing as the weakest points, are common among heritage speakers because they “have never had the gakkou no nihongo [school Japanese].” These types of students guided the development of the just-above-beginner-level courses EAST 241 and 242 and the just-below-intermediate-level EAST 341 and 342, designed to help students who have some background in Japanese focus on refining their writing.

“[With] all university language courses, if you have a background a little bit, maybe you can't join the super beginner class, and even if you speak fluently but have no knowledge of the writing, you can’t join an intermediate class,” Ikeda said. “That's why we created the writing courses as a bridge.”

Finding this bridge to reconnect with a heritage language can be far more difficult when learning spaces that account for the historical, and often traumatic, conditions of language loss are rare. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee was unable to find even a mildly tolerable learning resource for Khmer.

“I bought Cambodian language books, but often they're written by French scholars who lived in Cambodia, or just people who are there because of colonialism [....] They were always just straight up racist.”

Finally discovering an instructor who met their needs was immensely gratifying.

“When everything went online, I was able to find a teacher in California that was giving classes and that was really special, because it was the first time I was able to take a class,” Lee said. “The teacher is Cambodian [….] He was also queer, non-binary [….] It was really amazing to all of a sudden have this opportunity to learn in such a trauma-informed, holistic, anti-colonial space that really felt like it was getting to the core of not only just learning the language, but also the culture and everything.”

Once you locate a suitable mode of learning, the deliberate study of a language that has surrounded you since birth feels endlessly illuminating. Figuring out how to effectively employ the passive knowledge I had of Japanese to teach myself to speak it was the task of my summer. Slowly climbing out of the fuzzy depths of my muteness felt so restorative: Every time I sat down to write a journal entry in Japanese or repeated a silly phrase uttered by a Japanese reality TV star, I felt like I was doing myself some kind of justice, nurturing something central to my being. Upon hearing Japanese, joy would overcome me. This feeling motivated me to continue confronting the disjointed frustration of being unable to express myself in a language that felt so familiar. The intensity of the pull back to my heritage language is born out of distance—I know that if I had not moved away from my parents’ house, the only natural source of Japanese in my daily life, I would not have been so intensely driven toward reclaiming it.

Adolescence is a precarious time for heritage languages. As children begin to prioritize their peer relationships over family ties, the language of peer interactions will inevitably take precedence. A vocabulary in the dominant language builds up––topics discussed in informal environments––that do not develop in the heritage language. And, of course, in these early teen years, institutions and interactions aggressively amplify the pressure to conform, potentially triggering an outright rejection of the heritage language if there is not enough social value associated with its use. The transition out of adolescence, transfixed on a goal of “finding oneself,” places new value on individuality, which can be complicated if you have spent your youth severing yourself from a portion of your linguistic identity. In my case, entering the highly international and multilingual environment of McGill and Montreal has prompted new reflections on how I have understood my Japaneseness throughout my life. It turns out, this shift in perspective is a shared experience.

Finding a cultural community away from home has helped Lavanya bring Hindi into her expanding world.

“I think I used to compartmentalize because I didn't have that many South Asian friends,” Lavanya said. “The only people that I spoke to in Hindi were my family. And I've moved here and like, I've only recently started making South Asian friends. And it's through this spiritual organization that I'm a part of [....] I met so many people who were Indian, who were speaking the same language as me. And so I think that as I grow older, I'm doing less of that compartmentalization.”

Finding such a community offered Lavanya the space to express herself more fully. “I know that if I'm angry, like things are gonna come out in Hindi, if I'm tired, or if I'm being vulnerable, things are gonna come out in Hindi. And if I'm upholding this image, if I'm being professional, or if I'm trying to be very, very articulate, or very, very graceful, or very, very put together, it's gonna come out in English because I have a lot of confidence in English.”

For Dylan, joining the McGill Koreans Educational & Cultural Association (MECA) after coming to McGill was an eye-opening experience that initially gave him a sense of alienation.

"When I first met them, I was like, ‘Whoa, how am I even going to interact with anyone?’” Dylan said. “When people speak multiple languages, their personality kind of changes for each language [....] At first, I felt like, ‘Wow’, I should definitely learn Korean just so I can really get to know these people better. But now I'm just friends with them. And I don't really care. Now I just want to learn Korean for myself, because I want to be able to go to Korea and not be a tourist."

Those of us who return to the languages of our childhood as we cultivate our adult identities should remember that we are coming out of a stage where fitting in was paramount. It is easy to feel discouraged for having discarded a part of yourself in which you finally see value, but leaning into both the sweet, warm aspects and the icky, regretful aspects of reminiscing can reveal ways to shed layers of self-rejection. Speaking or recovering one’s heritage language is not universally existential or necessary to the cultivation of identity, but tending to my little seed of knowledge has been a wonderfully tangible way of collecting my sense of self into a comprehensible whole. In the space that exists between me and Japanese, I can cultivate a world of my own.

Such a direct turn inward can be difficult under calls to assimilate. Immigrant parents often face pressure to prioritize their children’s acquisition of the more pragmatic language of their new home over their family’s heritage language. A study of the views on language held by Japanese-descent mothers in Montreal found a prevalent belief that teaching a heritage language would hinder their children from becoming “good” Canadians. To wallow in the nostalgia of your heritage language when it provides you with no economic advantage feels self-indulgent and ridiculous, branded with a feminine sentimentality.

But nostalgia can be essential to the health of diasporic communities, strengthening relationships through the appreciation of shared histories. Under the Canadian state, economic and social insecurity stifles opportunities to engage in the time-consuming task of intergenerational language transmission. A lack of government funding forces heritage language schools and Indigenous language revitalization efforts to rely predominantly on community labour. In Quebec, Bill 96 requires new immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to learn French within six months of their arrival.

"I definitely don't blame people for the utilitarian perspective of language,” Lee said. “I think in a way, being able to push past a survival mode is a privilege. And because we exist within a capitalist society, you know, it’s almost like culture becomes a luxury.”

The Japanese word most analogous to “nostalgic”, natsukashii, denotes a sweet, smiling type of longing, a less overtly depressing reminiscence. This tender affection for the past is what motivates my autonomous language study, rather than a sensible future goal. Gaining the ability to have basic conversations with my Japanese aunts this summer gave me a taste of the joy I could cultivate by continuing my study. There is nothing to be gained from this work but love.

Making amends with the impracticality of my Japanese—the passivity of my knowledge, the fact that my aspirations for improving it come from a wholly emotional place—has helped me understand the Yes/No question, “Do you speak it?” as irrelevant. My personal connection with the language doesn’t have to manifest in a productive, demonstrable way. Oddly, this acceptance of indefiniteness makes my long journey toward active fluency feel more manageable—perfection does not have to be the expectation.

Nowadays, I’ll sometimes catch a Japanese word flying into my head before an English one, just like when I used to mix the languages up as a little kid. Natsukashii.

Illustrations by Mika Drygas, Design Editor