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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Column: Family Language

Every time my parents send an email to someone, they call me to check over it first. When my dad says something that’s not in proper English, my mom tells me to correct him so that he doesn’t say it in front of other people.
But no matter how shy my parents are about their grammar and pronunciation, I love their accents. I didn’t always, though. In high school, I used to get so embarrassed by their quirkiness that I never invited them to chaperone my field trips or watch any of my games.

How ashamed I am now for ever feeling that way.

All mothers and fathers have special relationships with their kids, but I think there is a unique bond that forms between immigrant parents and their first-generation children. Many come from less fortunate backgrounds, often having to struggle with language barriers, social prejudice and financial hardships in order to give their kids a good future.

Immigrant parents want their children to advance socially and economically in America, but many also want them to hold on to their cultural roots.

This identity struggle to preserve one’s heritage — while also striving to succeed in a new country — is a narrative that most immigrant families share.

With that being said, I think appreciating our parents’ quirky language habits gives us a way to maintain that connection with our history and cultural identity.

Now, appreciating our mother tongue more may not seem like a big deal compared to the adversity our parents faced to get us to America, but I think it’s a crucial step that needs to be taken in order to fully recognize the sacrifices they made for us.

I specify language because it holds a different cultural value than any other aspect of one’s heritage — even more so than traditions, artistic styles or foods. It allows us to maintain ties with our cultural roots no matter what part of the world we go to because humans employ language every day. We are shaped by it, and so are our thoughts and innermost aspirations.

There’s a quality about language that’s personal and private, yet public and shared. For example, using curse words was not common in my parents’ province in the Philippines. I’d never heard my family curse in English, so when I started going to school in the United States, it was so off-putting to hear other people use curse words.

Exclamations in Tagalog are usually humorous rather than vulgar. The “cursing” I did hear — if we can even call it that — when translated into English, only meant, “Oh my vegetable!” or “Oh, pregnant horse!”

I really appreciate this about my parents, especially now that I’m older. Cursing is not a regular part of my vocabulary because of them. As a result, I have such a larger variety of colorful terms at my disposal.

It’s important to maintain this language quirkiness, specifically with the people who raised us. I read an essay about immigrant parents who “struggle along with a new language and at low-paying jobs in order for their sons and daughters to climb the economic ladder, each generation advancing a rung.”

Since first-generation youth often identify with that struggle, they are more likely to be obedient to their parents out of respect and gratitude, rather than simple obligation.

At home, my parents usually speak “Taglish,” a hybrid of Tagalog and English. Whenever I hear Taglish from Filipino-Americans outside of my family, I’m naturally drawn to them. For me, Taglish is different from standard English not just because of how it sounds, but also because it immediately calls to mind every childhood experience —  every scraped knee my parents comforted, every good grade they praised, every difficult moment they carried me through.

Once the unique language quirkiness we share with our parents is stifled — whether out of Joy Luck Club-like embarrassment or too long a separation from our roots — there are few things that can replace it.

No matter how much we may love the food, the dances or the clothes of our culture, there’s a key element that is lost to us if we don’t understand or value that unique language our parents speak.

Having that language allows us to unlock a whole family history. It gives us both a means to understand as well as a means to act. It gives us the ability to transmit our thoughts in a personal way that only our loved ones can truly understand. Without it, our entire family dynamic would be lost.

JHUNEHL “why is spam musubi so good?” FORTALEZA can be contacted at jtfortaleza@ucdavis.edu.


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