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First Generation, Second Language

17 October 2017

Earlier this year, my Grandpa published a book of poetry. It’s a compilation of over 150 poems spanning half a lifetime, a bona fide history of his experiences in China and then subsequently here, in Australia. There are poems about everything, from the flowers in our backyard to my late Grandma. There are even a good five or six poems dedicated to yours truly.

And I can’t read them.

Not just because they’re written in the lofty, highbrow style of traditional Chinese poetry, or because their abstract imagery and precise phrasing seems baffling to the uninitiated, but because I can hardly read any Chinese at all.

My parents emigrated from China when my older sister was just three years old and, by the time I was born, they had been living in Australia for almost ten years. I was born and raised in a regional mining town in Western Australia. I spoke almost solely in Chinese for the first few years of my life, because my parents preferred it and my grandparents spoke barely any English.

My parents often tell stories of me as a child, running up to strangers in supermarkets and prattling on in fast-paced, exuberant Chinese; bemused, my targets would smile and nod indulgently at my childish antics.

Strangely enough, that habit hasn’t persisted into adulthood.

You hear frequently that children’s minds are impressionable. They pick up new skills quickly, and are very adept with languages. I entered school knowing little to no English, and within a few weeks became a total pro, apparently. After that, it became my primary language, my mother tongue retreating into the closed bubble of my home life.Eventually, this started to become a problem. I spoke Chinese fine and could keep up without issue at home, but had never learned to read or write in the language. When I was seven or eight, Grandma took it upon herself to teach me. I remember my first ‘Chinese lessons’, the two of us, bent over some basic Chinese learners’ book, my Grandma patiently attempting to explain brushstrokes and characters to me as I impatiently fidgeted and let my mind wander.

Still, she persisted, and I’m glad she did. It’s her – as well as my Grandpa – that I have to thank for the few characters that I do recognise today.
By the time I entered adolescence, there was a marked difference in my ability to use the two languages: English I had absolutely no trouble with, but my Chinese, while decent, was somewhat lacking.

This phenomenon is more common than you’d think, and it has a name: first language attrition. For immigrant families, it becomes both more prevalent with each subsequent generation. Those like me are called ‘heritage speakers’ as the language my family uses at home is different to the one spoken by the majority of people in our country.

Unfortunately, early exposure to a second language (L2) that is more commonly used than the first can often result in reduced competence in the first language (L1). The earlier L2 is acquired, the stronger the effect. My mother says that my English fluency overtook that of my Chinese almost immediately.

When I was younger, this never really struck me as an issue. For many years, I figured that as long as I knew enough to be able to communicate with my family, everything would be fine. That was all that mattered.

It was during high school that I really began to take notice of the difference between me and some of my bilingual friends. My best friend, also a first-generation immigrant born in Australia (or ‘ABC’ as some call it), spoke Chinese fluently and could both read and write in the language. She often messaged her friends in China – even wrote them letters – and I looked on, admiring and, admittedly, a bit envious.

With time, I found that Chinese didn’t come to me as easily as it used to; I couldn’t express certain ideas as eloquently as I wanted to and stumbled occasionally (read: frequently) with pronunciation and sentence construction. Next to my fluent friends – for whom the language still flowed off the tongue like, well, their native language – I felt clumsy, awkward. I spoke a little less, lost a little more, spoke a little less again – a downward spiral that has persisted to this day.

It’s actually not that easy to maintain fluency; studies have shown that knowledge of a native language tends to stabilise around age twelve, so consistent practice and exposure are absolutely crucial, especially for younger children. Even my cousin, who moved here when she was six, says that her foreign accent is sometimes detected by native Chinese speakers. Of course, it’s not impossible, nor even necessarily arduous to get that practice. Many of my friends achieved this by translating for their parents, or by making frequent trips back to China where they had no choice but to speak Chinese. Watching TV, reading books and listening to music. A stronger commitment to my first language would undoubtedly have prevented the deterioration of my Chinese abilities. Hindsight is, as usual, 20/20.

It’s engendered a bit of a cultural gap, as well. Language is, after all, an expression of culture. A good grasp of any language both prompts and requires a strengthened and more contextual understanding of the culture that comes with it. It’s why your French professor is so determined to impress on you la culture français, and the reason your Japanese professor teaches you to make takoyaki. My ‘ABC’ friend consumes a steady diet of Chinese pop culture. She is active on several Chinese social media platforms and loves Chinese talk shows. I, on the other hand, am bewildered by the supremacy of WeChat and only faintly remember a few shows that used to blare on our TV.

My sister says that she feels her own limited Chinese prevents her from having deeper, more engaging conversations with our family. I feel the same way. But at least with Mum and Dad, I can use English. It’s conversations with Grandpa that really tear me up inside; literally lost for words, I find myself unable to hold a conversation that trespasses the trivial. I don’t know how to express myself. I can’t even tell him about my classes – such a regular, everyday conversation transcends my abilities in the language we share.

So where do we go from here? Should migrant children be encouraged to maintain a degree of fluency in their native tongue? Or is this just a natural process of cultural integration? I know that Chinese won’t exactly die out through first language attrition, but there are other, rarer languages that might. UNESCO lists hundreds of minority languages as varying degrees of ‘extinct’, and some suggest that of the estimated 6,000 languages around today, we could be left with as few as 600 by 2115. Then again, all languages transform over time, technically speaking. The English we speak today would be almost unrecognisable to a speaker living 500–600 years in the past. Perhaps it’s just history at work. But we’re still left with this linguistic and cultural divide between a child and their own grandparents, or even their parents, sometimes.

As for me, I’ve committed to re-learning my precious mother tongue, so I can one day have a real conversation with my grandpa about our respective lives, or flick through his book and see more than just meaningless brush strokes. In the meantime, I’ll keep frowning awkwardly at the ‘first language’ box, wondering which to tick: the one that came first, or the one that won out.