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 in an effort 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, 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 in order 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?