The pain of forgetting one's mother / father tongue

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And the pleasure of regaining it with the help of IT.

"Forgetting My First Language:  When I speak Cantonese with my parents now, I rely on translation apps."

By Jenny Liao, New Yorker
September 3, 2021

This is a perennial problem among immigrants, especially those who move to their adoptive country before the age of about eleven and a half years.  There are so many poignant moments in this article that I wish I could quote the whole of it.  Instead, I will only highlight a few of the most salient passages.

No one prepared me for the heartbreak of losing my first language. It doesn’t feel like the sudden, sharp pain of losing someone you love, but rather a dull ache that builds slowly until it becomes a part of you. My first language, Cantonese, is the only one I share with my parents, and, as it slips from my memory, I also lose my ability to communicate with them. When I tell people this, their eyes tend to grow wide with disbelief, as if it’s so absurd that I must be joking. “They can’t speak English?” they ask. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer. The truth is, I rely on translation apps and online dictionaries for most of our conversations.

It’s strange when I hear myself say that I have trouble talking to my parents, because I still don’t quite believe it myself. We speak on the phone once a week and the script is the same: “Have you eaten yet?” my father asks in Cantonese. Long pause. “No, not yet. You?” I reply. “Why not? It’s so late,” my mother cuts in. Long pause. “Remember to drink more water and wear a mask outside,” she continues. “O.K. You too.” Longest pause. “We’ll stop bothering you, then.” The conversation is shallow but familiar. Deviating from it puts us (or, if I’m being honest, just me) at risk of discomfort, which I try to avoid at all costs.

I grew up during the nineties in Sheepshead Bay, a quiet neighborhood located in the southern tip of Brooklyn, where the residents were mostly Russian-Jewish immigrants. Unable to communicate with neighbors, my parents kept to themselves and found other ways to participate in American culture. Once a month, my dad attempted to re-create McDonald’s chicken nuggets at home for my two brothers and me before taking us to the Coney Island boardwalk to watch the Cyclone roller coaster rumble by. On Sundays, my mom brought me to violin lessons, and afterward I accompanied her to a factory in Chinatown where she sacrificed her day off to sew blouses to pay for my next lesson while I did homework. These constant acts of love—my parents’ ideas of Americana—shaped who I am today. Why is it so difficult for me, at age thirty-two, to have a meaningful discussion with them? As an adult, I feel like their acquaintance instead of their daughter.

When I first learned English in elementary school, I became bilingual quickly with help from English-as-a-second-language classes. I switched back and forth seamlessly between the two languages, running through multiplication tables with my mother in Cantonese and, in the same breath, telling my brother in English that I hated math. I attended my parent-teacher conferences as a translator for my mother despite the obvious conflict of interest; “Jenny is an excellent student over all but needs just a little more help with math,” my third-grade teacher said, which I’d relay to my mom with pride only after redacting the bit about math.

It wasn’t an issue that my math skills weren’t strong. My parents encouraged me to excel in English class because they believed it to be the key to success in America, even if they never learned the language. English would aid in my performance across all subjects in school because that was the language my teachers taught in. But, most important, my parents believed that a mastery of English would promise a good, stable job in the future. This missing piece in my parents’ lives would propel me forward for the rest of mine.

As I entered my teen-age years, my social circle shifted. I attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where the students were predominantly Asian. For the first time since I was a preschooler, most of my friends looked like me. My personality evolved; I became bold, rebellious, and maybe even a bit brash compared with the painfully shy wallflower I had played in the past. I dyed my hair magenta and shoplifted makeup for the thrill. Upon meeting other Chinese American students who spoke English at home with their parents, I became furious that my parents weren’t bilingual, too. If they valued English so much and knew how necessary it was in this country, why didn’t they do whatever it took to learn it? “Mommy and Baba had to start working. We had no money. We had no time. We needed to raise you and your brothers.” All I heard were excuses. I resented them for what I thought was laziness, an absence of sense and foresight that they should have had as my protectors. When I continued to be subjected to racial slurs even after my English had become pitch-perfect, I blamed my parents. Any progress I made towards acceptance in America was negated by their lack of assimilation. With nowhere to channel my fury, I spoke English to my parents, knowing that they couldn’t understand me. I was cruel; I called them hurtful names and belittled their intelligence. I used English, a language they admired, against them.

My fluency eroded so gradually through the years that there isn’t a definitive moment when my vocabulary became less extensive, my grammar less polished. It didn’t occur to me that my Cantonese was regressing well beyond the tip of my tongue until it was too late. First, my directions were off. I started saying jau, which means “right,” when I meant to say zo, which means “left.” This caused my dad to make wrong turns when I navigated in his car. Then, the names of colors started to escape me. “I like your green dress,” I said to my mom in Cantonese once. “This is blue, silly!” she laughed. And a couple of years ago, I tried replicating my grandma’s steamed-egg recipe but asked my dad how she used to pan-fry them. “You mean ‘steam,’ right?” He intrinsically knew how to decipher my broken Cantonese. Eventually, I struggled to construct sentences altogether, often mispronouncing words or failing completely to recall them.

The struggle to retain my first language feels isolating but isn’t unique; it’s a shared pain common among first- and second-generation immigrants. This phenomenon is known as first-language attrition, the process of forgetting a first or native language. My brothers are further along in this process—they have more trouble communicating with my parents than I do. They’re both older than I am by nearly a decade, so they’ve had more time to forget. The frustration is palpable when they rummage through what’s left of their Cantonese to make small talk, whether it’s describing the weather or pointing out what’s on TV.

My closest friends include first-generation Chinese Americans who also have fraught relationships with their parents. Our group chats read like a Cantonese 101 class: “How do you say . . . ,” “What’s the word for . . . ,” “What’s the difference between . . .” Emotional connections between a child and parent are weakened if the only language they share is also the language being forgotten. This is the case for many children of immigrants; to “succeed” in America, we must adopt a new language in place of our first—the one our parents speak best—without fully considering the strain it places on our relationships for the rest of our lives.

It’s deeply disorienting to have thoughts that I so eagerly want to share with my parents but which are impossible to express. Cantonese no longer feels natural, and sometimes even feels ridiculous, for me to speak. My parents and I have no heart-to-heart conversations, no mutual understanding, on top of cultural and generational gaps to reckon with. My mother has a habit of following her sentences with “Do you understand what I’m saying?” More often than not, I don’t. She hasn’t mastered translation apps yet, but, like me, she’ll resort to using synonyms and simpler phrases until I’m able to piece her words together. My heart aches, knowing there’s a distance between us that may never fully be bridged.

Looking back, forfeiting the language passed on to me from my parents was the cost of assimilation. I don’t view this as a blemish on my family’s narrative but rather as a symbol of our perseverance.

Our weekly calls are livelier now. I have a backlog of topics and no idea how to broach them, but, armed with my phone and a bit of patience, I’m up for the challenge. Though Cantonese no longer feels natural for me to speak, it will always be my first language—even if it takes a few translation apps and a lifetime for us to get reacquainted.

Love, loss, and liberation.


Selected readings


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Beirne said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 1:20 pm

    A good but sad article. In her case, it's really a matter of priorities. I relearned to speak Polish over the last three years. It's not a mother tongue for me, but I had sort of learned and then completely forgotten it 12 years ago. I have weekly conversations with my tutor where we just talk about any random topic that comes up. I'm far from fluent, but I have interesting conversations in the language. If she wants real conversations with her parents she just needs to relearn Cantonese.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 3:45 pm

    "If she wants real conversations with her parents she just needs to relearn Cantonese."

    Of course then there is the question of "what KIND of 'Cantonese?" Having had to deal with 2nd/3rd gen. "heritage language learners" over 30+ years of teaching Mandarin at The Univ of Illinois at Chicago, and also volunteering for many years at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago ( in Chicago's Chinatown, I am aware of all the various (sub-) dialects of "Cantonese" (Yue) being spoken. Many people over age 80 here and in other 'Chinatowns' in the US, Canada, and elsewhere speak (some form of) "Toisan wa' or other related (sub-) dlalects (Hoiping, Zhongshan) from the Seyup area of Canton whence many Chinese came to N. America starting with the California Gold Rush of 1849, followed by the building of (the western half of) the transcontinental RR (1860-1869) and the Canadian Pacific RR shortly thereafter. Then there are those more recent arrivals who speak a more 'standard' Cantonese from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and also those born and raised in more cosmopolitan Hong Kong. (My general impression is that speakers of the HK version look down on the Guangzhou speakers, who in turn look down upon speakers of other rural (sub-)dialects, and (generally) everyone looks down on speakers from the Seyup area, especially speakers of Toisan wa. One might compare it to very rural Quebec French.) –I once had a (young) speaker of HK Cantonese and a (rare) young speaker from/of Toisan who was not embarrassed to speak in front of a HK spkr, and asked them to translate various Mandarin sentences for me. This resulted in lots of nervous giggles, and some incomprehension on the part of the HK speaker; the TS speaker of course was familiar with 'standard' and HK Cantonese from having heard it on radio and TV.

    SO: which "Cantonese" will she learn?

    This is of course not unique to speakers of Chinese; children of many immigrants face this same problem, which has given rise to the concept of , and classes for "Heritage language learners" in recent decades.

  3. Beirne said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    She would learn the dialect of her parents. If she gets something close she can at least talk to them more and she would pick up their ways of speaking. Once again, it is a matter of priorities. Are you suggesting that it is impossible for someone to learn the Cantonese of her parents?

  4. Beirne said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:36 pm

    And reading the full article, she did try to relearn, but did not pick effective methods, only some chat with waiters and shop staff along with watching movies. So I'll give her some credit and maybe she will pick things up as she speaks with them. The concept of classes for heritage language learners that you mentioned would help and it fits with what I suggested in my first post.

  5. Uly said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:41 pm

    She would learn the dialect of her parents. If she gets something close she can at least talk to them more and she would pick up their ways of speaking. Once again, it is a matter of priorities. Are you suggesting that it is impossible for someone to learn the Cantonese of her parents?

    This requires her to have access to a class or a tutor or a SOMETHING in that particular dialect. Which, depending on her situation, she might not have.

  6. Beirne said,

    September 4, 2021 @ 8:53 pm

    "She would learn the dialect of her parents. If she gets something lose she can at least talk to them more and she would pick up their ways of speaking. Once again, it is a matter of priorities. Are you suggesting that it is impossible for someone to learn the Cantonese of her parents?"

    From the full article it doesn't sound like she tried to find someone, and it appears that the mainstream movies and Jacky Cheung songs that she is learning from are close enough to her parents' dialect that she considers them useful. I don't think the dialect is the problem. With services like italki and others someone should be able to teach her close-enough Cantonese to help her structure, usage, etc.

  7. John Swindle said,

    September 5, 2021 @ 10:04 pm

    Anyone can lose weight. Learn to ski. Swim. Surf. Ride a bicycle. Fly an airplane. Learn or relearn trigonometry or a rural variety of Cantonese. There are courses. Methods. Why would we not already know how to do these things?

    Maybe we can also find a way to learn empathy for other people. The author has lost something and is mourning its loss. She's learning how to communicate with her parents, with language posing some barriers, and feeling inadequate to the task, but her relationship with her parents is a positive one. Enough.

  8. KIRINPUTRA said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 10:26 pm

    "About eleven and a half years" — sharpest estimate I've seen of the point of no forgetting. Wow.

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