NOVEMBER 26, 2017

The quiet tragedy of forgetting your first language

‘Over time, without really noticing, we all lost our mother tongue.’

Andi Sharma, November 24, 2017

“We walk around holding two worlds within us and the war that rages inside of us is fought quietly and alone.
We spend our days at school hiding our differences, but we spend our nights steeped in our home culture and heritage.
We are told to maintain tradition but the world we now live in demands of us assimilation and expects of us compliance.
We spend our lives trying to resolve this tension within ourselves and we have little to help guide us, as our experience is markedly different than that of our parents — they who have had decades with their cultures where we, as immigrant children, only have a handful of years before we are brought to new lands.”

This article spurred some reflection time! I’d like to share some of my migration & language story.

My parents are both Lebanese. My dad grew up in Canada and didn’t know much Arabic. My mom was born in Senegal and her first language was French and then she grew up in Lebanon and spoke Arabic. When they got married they barely understood each other. My sister and I were raised in Venezuela and our first languages were Spanish, which is mostly gone for me. It’s surreal to have watched childhood home videos and not understand what I am even saying. My memories start at six, when we moved to Winnipeg. I quickly learned English and assimilated pretty easily because I have white-passing privilege and somehow I think people romanticize a Spanish foreign girl over an Arab foreign girl.

When I was preparing for our performance in Chile with CONSTELACIONES collective I started to think more deeply about how displacement and exile take language away. We took Spanish lessons and I was so bummed that I wasn’t picking it up quickly BUT I did hold on to the complement that the teacher gave to me which was that I had good pronunciation.

As for Arabic, I understand somewhat but can’t really speak it back other than everyday expressions and exclamations. Eavesdropping in public doesn’t work. Understanding my extended family barely works. Somehow it’s just mom. And what my sister and I didn’t realize until we had partners is that it is not uncommon for my mom to inject multiple languages in one sentence.

I always feel really bitter when I tell people that my mom and sister can speak four languages and I only know one. I hope to get better at Spanish and to learn some Arabic before the first time I ever get to visit Lebanon. My mom also has a theory that when she is old and gets alzheimers she will forget English and of course this scares me too. She is is a nurse. She has watched it happen.

I feel bitter about my Spanish and I also feel bitter about my Arabic. How the forces of war and displacement spin life into an unrecognizable reality for so many families, for my family. How I could easily forget all of this and not make work about diaspora because I easily mesh into so-called Canadian culture. How the nostalgia for a distant homeland that I have not yet even visited is a mix of tragic sting and sensationalized imagery. How my family history is embedded with politics of geography, colonization, and class/race/gender and there is so so much that I don’t know and feel overwhelmed by. How the words of this article ring true and how I feel lucky/comfortable/fuggen weird about living here.

Last summer my family celebrated 20 years living in Canada. If decolonial feminism has taught me anything it’s that Canada is not what it is celebrated to be and Canada is a settler nation with violent ongoing colonization. So I have been left wondering how diasporic and displaced peoples conceptualize home when this place we live and call home is actually stolen land.

Celebrating 20 years in Canada is a success for the safety, stability, agency, and opportunity that it brought to my mom, sister, and I when we moved here. As always though, it’s important to complicate the narrative. I feel a million things at once; disentangling my yearning for home and language is a sentimental and personal journey that is also highly layered.

Writing and art help me remember that this is important, though. Processing and bringing criticality to my family’s experiences is the life work of self-theorizing. It is also the immense pleasure of appreciating deeply the self-told narratives of others in the margins as well as the social forces at play. it is important to honour my own positionality and family’s stories while not just centering myself, what I know, and what I want to know.

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