Diaspora Experiences Learning Would-have-been Mother Tongue as Adult


I’m looking to discover a bit more about the experiences of diaspora learning the language their parents never taught them or spoke with them. I’m curious to hear about experiences within the communities, challenge of learning the would-have-been mother tongue in comparison to other languages (with which one shares less of an emotional connection perhaps).


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No-one else replied? I was hoping to read answers to this!

I am somewhat in the category you describe. Child of immigrants, barely taught their language. As a result, missed out most importantly on real conversations with older relatives, who are all passed now. They could speak english, but it wasn’t the same.
Still, trying to learn the language now. No-one to practice with - the rest of my generation wants to speak english anyway, my parents speak english to us, as they always have.

Challenges attempting to learn when younger - some particular parents laughed at their children’s efforts, perhaps they didn’t mean to be mean, but it didn’t feel good!

There were others, but i’m hoping someone else sees this and adds so it’s not just me rambling on.

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haha, yes! I’m so surprised you’re the first to respond. I thought there would be more traumatised people like us. Is it possible for me to e-mail you and ask you some questions? Or perhaps you are happy to even post them here?

Thanks for your response!

I am happy to continue the conversation here, so others might see it!

I will reply more regularly too - been shamefully neglecting my language learning and avoiding the memrise forums!

Hey Jooles,

My excuses for not having responded earlier. I had a very crazy start to the year. Now is the time to pick something like this up.

So I’d basically really like to hear a history of your encounters with the language (also which language/community it is!). But if if helps here are some more to the point questions.

  • Did your parents ever speak the language with you?
  • Did your parents speak it between themselves?
  • If so, how much did you feel this helped you when starting to learn the language?
  • What were the reasons your parents chose not to speak the language with you?
  • What is a basic timeline of attempts to learn the language and actual progress?
  • Do you feel that you have some sort of trauma (in a light sense) associated with not having been given the language?
  • If so has that inhibited your attempts to learn at all?

If you wish for me to give some of my own responses I’m happy to detail my own experiences of course.

Hi! Great to try and keep this conversation going. Everything is going a bit crazy now and so I’m only just responding now… Memrise keeps reminding me that I haven’t even done any learning for a while…!!

I am very happy to answer some of these questions, others might take some thought / perhaps I’d answer more in PM. The language is Bengali (Indian).

My parents did not really speak the language “with” me - we spoke english together. But they did try to teach it to me, more like as a school subject. I learned the alphabet and to speak, read and write a very small number of phrases, but mostly with a lot of dictation or other help. A conversation was never within my reach.

There’s a song by Will Jay - I can only write my name … that sums it up!

They did speak it between themselves. I think it did help because at least I was exposed to the sound of it. I think they chose not to speak it with me and teach that way when I was learning to talk, because there was some concern that I would try to speak it with childminders instead of English…

After a while when I did try to speak a bit, they did have a habit of teasing about mistakes - and I’m not the only one who experienced this! This definitely inhibited learning, as I wasn’t keen on trying to speak if it would result in laughter and everyone just reverting to English… I am no psychologist so wouldn’t know whether to use the word “trauma” but it did make me sad and annoyed!

I’m long over that now, and continue to try to learn (on Memrise!). Sadly most of the people I would have spoken with, are now passed away. My generation wants to speak English…

I’d still say “I can only write my name” sums it up, as far as progress goes, though I’ve gotten a little further than just my name. I can understand simple conversation.

I do have a lot of thoughts on this really. I wonder if anyone else would chip in with their experiences? I’d love to know yours if you are willing to share!

Hey JoolesBH,

Thanks so much for sharing this story. It’s quite similar to my own only with a few substitutes. Can I check, am I right in assuming you grew up in the UK?

So my lost language, would-have-been mother tongue is Tamil (Sri Lanka). My parents migrated to Australia in the mid 70s. At the time they were some of the first Sri Lankan migrants there, and furthermore the first migrants of colour (Australia just coming out of White Australia policy). They made the choice to raise us speaking only English. This was based on a fear of us not being understood at the childcare and also the fear of us having an accent; things which sound ludicrous now but which back then, with less research about the ability of children to learn multiple languages and given the social context, can be understood (even if it has taken me a long time to come to terms with this).

But I really learned next to no Tamil throughout my youth. I could pretty much only say come and eat and I live in Australia. Our Tamil was so limited that we began to make a joke of it around our cousins (who mostly spoke pretty well as they had grown up in SL and arrived later).

Learning Tamil has been been a real struggle. I committed to it about 8 years ago, but I was like a car trying to get into second gear. I think that there were maybe two moments along the way that I got into second gear and then usually regressed, due to many of the cultural stigmas you mentioned, also the dominant South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil are extremely different, which limited my learning resources. But since about 6 months ago I think that I can say that I have made my way into 3rd gear, even if I still consider my Tamil awful.

(Also to give a bit of context, I generally have a knack for learning languages, I speak a number of other languages and have usually been able to pick them up fairly quickly. This has made my struggle with Tamil all the more frustrating because in my mind I feel like I should be able to speak it fluently)

So may I then ask, what prevents you now from committing to it learning it and really going full throttle? Is it just the lack of people who you would speak it with? In the last 6 months I have managed to switch from speaking English with my mum to speaking in Tamil (my dad subconsciously refuses). I have to say as frustrating and tiring as it has been, it’s been a really beautiful experience to shift such a fundamental aspect of our communication.