Losing your Mother Tongue


“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” said Pessoa.

So what happens when you lose your language?

Like many first-generation Portuguese Canadians, I grew up speaking Portuguese at home but my fluency had eroded by the time I entered junior high school. My father, anxious to see his children assimilate and succeed, encouraged my siblings and me to use English at home even though he and my mother nearly always spoke to us in Portuguese. As a teenager, Portuguese represented “the old country” and my parents’ old-fashioned ideas so I was eager to leave the language —and my heavy accent—behind me to fit in with my classmates. It would be decades before I would begin to feel the loss of my mother tongue.

As a child of Azorean immigrants, it was my parents’ language more than anything else that connected me to their homeland—and to my heritage.  It was the language of my first words: mãe, pae, leite, vaca, bicho, Cala a boca!… It was the language of food, lullabies and superstitions whispered in the night. More than anything else, the language takes me back to a time in my childhood when our large extended family was a tight unit of outsiders struggling together to fit into a new life, a new homeland. Portuguese was the language I was raised in, disciplined in, and loved in.

I see how my mother, with her limited grasp of the English language, lacks the words to communicate with her grandchildren and how even I simplify and edit much of what I share with her because there is a limit to what she can understand in English—and a limit to what I can convey in Portuguese. I cringe at the sound of my own accent and more often than not, revert to English rather than continue to slaughter the language.

In the following poem, Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena (English translation by George Monteiro) eloquently captures the grief and bitterness of immigrants who find themselves unable to communicate with their children through a shared language.

Notions about Linguistics

I listen to my children talk English.
Not the smallest alone but the older
Ones too, and they to the young ones.
Born elsewhere, they grew up
With Portuguese in their
Ears. But it’s English they speak,
They who will not be merely Americans;
Melted, they continue to melt in
Seas not their own. Tell me about
Poetry’s mystery, a tongue’s traditions,
A race of people, all that is inexpressible
Save in the untranslatable essence
Of a people. Bastards. Languages
Last centuries and will survive even when
Hidden within other tongues, but they
Die every day in the stammer of those who
Inherit them. So immortal are they that
A half dozen years suffice to suppress them
In mouths dissolving into new shapes,
Impressed by another people, a
Different culture. So metaphysical
Are languages, so untranslatable, that they
Melt thus, not unto the highest of heavens, but
In the quotidian crap of another tongue.

I wonder if most immigrants carry this burden of existential angst about the loss of their language and how this loss created a communication barrier between them and their children.  However much our parents may have encouraged us to speak English to assimilate, I think they were saddened by the repercussions of introducing a new language into the family home.  Losing one’s mother tongue is often the first step—the largest step—towards moving away from one’s ethnicity towards a new identity and culture.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with navigating the Portuguese-English divide in your family. Have you lost—or reclaimed—your mother tongue?

10 thoughts on “Losing your Mother Tongue

  1. Last summer, when I was in Lisbon, so much of what I heard sounded familiar, and I had moments of complete understanding what was being asked of me and yet, zero comprehension of what Portuguese words had been spoken, but, then responding in English.

    My father’s first language was Portuguese, and I heard it around the house when I was a child, mixed also with French. For me, too, there was a strong, adamant push to assimilate and to “be American” and the notion that speaking English was the way to succeed to get ahead, with it also implied that Portuguese was the old way, the way to stay stuck. Now, of course, I WISH I had been taught Portuguese as a child. Today I sit in front of my stereo listening to Portuguese language CDs from the library, reaching out, trying to understand a simple question: Uma só língua nunca basta!

  2. George P. Reis June 2, 2012 — 8:07 pm

    My parents were born in 1928 and grew up in Portugal. While they became very proud Americans, and very proud parents of Americans, they somehow avoided the tendency to stigmatize the Portuguese language. Portuguese and English were coequal cohabitants in our home. (Although I was well into my 20s before I ever used the word “underwear” at home: “cuecas” just seemed cooler) My mother learned English in her late 30s and early 40s as I was growing up, so the sounds of Portuguese were imprinted on my brain very early. Which is why I can still sound like a native speaker, but only for a couple minutes until I make a stumble so egregious that I appear to be either mentally deficient or just American. I grew up with severe envy of my Portuguese cousins’ fluency (even though they couldn’t speak English nearly as well as I could speak Portuguese). But I was also an insufferable American when I was a kid on visits to Portugal, always defending Old Glory, and looking down on the lower level of professionalism I saw in Portuguese weather broadcasters and other markers of high culture. Nevertheless, Portuguese was, and is, for me the language of home, of comfort, heightened emotions, nostalgia, and dare I say it, saudades. When I was 13, I found in my parents’ closet a record album titled “Joao Villaret no Sao Luis,” a recording made in the 1950s(?) of the great Portuguese actor performing a selection of poetry at the Sao Luis Municipal Theatre in Lisbon. I was transfixed. It was my introduction to literary Portuguese, and it reliably gave me goosebumps. To this day, Villaret’s voice moves me to the core. A magnificent performer, the Amalia of the spoken word, I’d say. There’s a faint, but direct line between hearing Villaret at 13 and the circuitous route I took to graduating from NYU as its only Portuguese major many years later. But in truth, it was my mother who gave me my first taste of literary Portuguese. She had that uniquely Portuguese way of speaking that is drenched in affection, reverence, and good sense. Only when I began studying Pessoa did I realize that it hadn’t been my Mom who invented the line “tudo vale pena quando a alma nao e’ pequena.” Thanks to my parents, I never shied away from the language of the old country, and for that I will always be grateful to them.

  3. Until I was nine years old I did not know one single word of English. I lived in São Miguel, Açores, where I was born. When my parents came to Canada, my extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins had already arrived. My cousins taught me my first English words before I started school in grade four. For several years I retreated into the language of my birth when I was alone; I thought exclusively in Portuguese even though I was speaking fluent English by then. The shift from one language to the other became normal and seamless. At home, my parents spoke Portuguese, as did my aunts and uncles. But my cousins and I spoke in English. Portuguese began to feel exotic, old world, reminding us of a geography we, all born in the Azores, had left behind. While our parents continued to speak Portuguese to one another and to us, we now responded mostly in English with a few broken Portuguese words.
    I entered the world of English effortlessly; I discovered that I loved to read in English and without knowing how it happened the day came when I stopped thinking in Portuguese. The shift from the mother tongue to the adopted one happened naturally, the former starved for lack of use, the latter enriched by everyday pervasive use in speech, in music, in television, in movies, in everything.
    Despite the fact that I now lived in “English”, I continued to believe, in my heart, that I was Azorean through and through. Until a day when I went back to my homeland over ten years ago to participate in a summer Portuguese Language course taught at the Universidade dos Açores. I arrived feeling so proud to be back on the island where I was born, the place where I truly believed I belonged. A local student I spoke with noticed my accent but was surprised when I had told her that I had been born in Ponta Delgada. “Maybe you were born here,” she said, “but you aren’t from here.” Her astute assessment was a harsh blow to my naive belief that I was more Azorean than Canadian, only because she was right. I had lived most of my life in English with Portuguese as an old background that kept fading more and more with each passing year.
    Unlike many immigrants, I stopped participating in Portuguese community events by the age of thirteen. I heard about the church processions and the visits my parents made to our extended family but I was an outsider by then. To this day, my friends and acquaintances come from various ethnic backgrounds but our meeting place is the English language. My partner is from a Scottish/English background and although he indulges me with trying to speak a few Portuguese words, it’s not the same as having a conversation with someone who is fluent in the language. It is sad, I realize now, that long ago I felt that I had to reject the Portuguese connection with other immigrants due to the belief that my “self” survival depended on getting away as much as I could from my ethnic community.
    The price I paid for this choice is that I live in a constant state of inner exile. I still long for the “Portugueseness” in me, I still want to embrace and “matar a saudade” of my most inner self’s expression through the language of my birth. I have always felt that it’s language that above all nurtures our identity. I long to speak in Portuguese with an ease I no longer have. I do read, watch movies, television, listen to music, in Portuguese as a means to feed my soul; but none of this is as powerful as hearing myself speaking the words. Once in awhile I’ll read Portuguese aloud to myself just to hear myself in the language. I can’t help but envy those who, while living in Toronto for decades, still speak Portuguese as though as they arrived yesterday from the islands.
    I recognize that language has the power to psychologically create a place of belonging in the world. But I am also finding that with the passing years it’s easier to forget this truth until I read something like “Losing your Mother Tongue” that disturbs my consciousness and, once again, reminds me of my longing to immerse myself in the only language that can still bring me emotional comfort.
    A few weeks ago, while accompanying my mother for surgery, I could not help but be drawn into a conversation I heard. An older man was in the waiting area with perhaps his daughter or granddaughter. She spoke to him in English. But he only responded in Portuguese. “You have to take your all your clothes off and put on the hospital gown,” she said to him, and he replied, “E as cuacas, também?” “Yes, even your underwear,” she confirmed. And so it went: she speaking in English, he in Portuguese. But when a nurse came and spoke to the patient, he was able to respond to her in English. He did speak English after all. So why did he respond only in Portuguese with the young woman? Maybe there was comfort in being able to use his mother tongue until he had no choice but to step out of it in order to communicate.
    I found this scene extraordinary and painful to listen to because right in front of me I was watching the vestiges of a dying ability to communicate in one’s language with a family member. It encapsulated all the broken conversations so many of us have been having for decades with members of our own families, some who still speak Portuguese, some who only understand through hearing, and some, the younger ones, who no longer understand at all.
    I hear my cousins’ grown-up children these days lament the fact that they don’t speak the language of their Portuguese ancestors. I hope that one day this will change. Só podemos esperar.

  4. George P. Reis June 3, 2012 — 9:57 am

    Very poignant, Emanuel. It’s such a complicated business going back and forth between two cultures, and I think first generation types like you and me really struggle with that. Sometimes, it’s a productive struggle, yielding unexpected benefits, other times, it’s just alienating. On the whole, I would have to say it’s a privilege to be “in between” with a unique perspective on two cultures. Of course, the funny thing is that immigrants in the new world often cling much more closely to the old ways than those who stay behind in the old world. There was a good film made about that– “Ganhar a Vida” which is about Portuguese immigrants living in Paris. At least North American Portuguese immigrants have a reasonable hope to assimilate wholly in a generation or two, whereas assimilation probably never happens completely in a place like France. I remember a phrase from that movie: “Na Franca, chacun olha por si”

  5. George,
    Thank you for reminding us that it is a privilege to be of the two cultures. I fully agree. As much as I go on about the fracture or dissonant chord of belonging to one or the other, it is true that I have been very blessed and fortunate in my experiences as a Canadian. Literature, both Portuguese and English, has played a huge role in my life. I can’t imagine not being able to relish in the beauty of the English language as much as I find the same beauty in the Portuguese one. Both nurture my soul and my sense of being. However, the challenge for me has always been how to feel at ease or at home in both cultures, at the same time. I always imagined that I had to choose one over the other. Kind of saying that I thought that to be loyal to one I had to dismiss the other. I know this is weird logic but that’s how I began to experience to my sense of identity after I came to Canada. I was pleased to read that, for you, both languages were “coequal and cohabitants” in your home. It is only now that I am beginning to accept comfortably that both languages are an integral part of my past, present, and that in future I no longer have to choose one over the other.

  6. This is such an interesting dialogue. I’m a second-generation Portuguese American with parents who left the Azores when they were young children. They lost the language in their teens although they can understand basic Portuguese. My grandparents lived with us so they were my only exposure to the Portuguese language and culture. As a kid, I could understand a little Portuguese but I’ve since lost that ability. I really wish my parents had not turned their backs so completely on their heritage…

  7. A wonderful and evocative piece of writing. I’m a fan of Jorge de Sena too.

  8. Desculpa esta intervenção tardia, mas só recentemente descobri o seu blog por agora escrevo em português pois o meu inglês já não é o que era.
    Até aos meus oito anos o meu português limitava-se a umas meras palavras e apesar de compreender o que me diziam respondia sempre em inglês. Depois fomos viver para a ilha das Flores e aí vi-me e desejei-me para aprender português mas aos poucos lá me aprefeiçoei e o meu inglês limitou-se às aulas no “colégio”.
    Voltei para o Canadá, agora com 16 e com a ajuda dos meus primos que me proibíram de falar português fiquei bastante fluente em inglês. Dois anos depois regresso aos Açores mas agora para S.Miguel e julgava eu bilingue. Um dia no supermercado com minha mãe começo uma conversa animada em inglês quando minha mãe me repreende dizendo que parecia que não sabia falar português e que podia estar a dar a entender que era uma “Chica Esperta”. Fiquei furiosa e perguntei Afinal sou uma portuguesa que fala inglês ou sou uma canadiana que fala português?
    Infelizmente com o passar dos anos o inglês foi se perdendo … um dia tomo coragem e escrevo aqui em inglês.

  9. Fernanda Viveiros June 10, 2013 — 9:39 am

    Anna, great story. An English-speaking Portuguese or a Portuguese-speaking Canadian, indeed!
    I’d recommend you check out Vamberto Freitas, a native of S. Miguel. He lived in the United States for many years before returning to the Azores and writes on his blog, Nas duas margens. He’s also written a number of books, in Portuguese, that I believe you’d find interesting considering your own dual-identity experiences. I’d highly recommend borderCrossings: leituras transatlanticas.

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