Losing your Mother Tongue

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“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?

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Azorean Profiling

Youth of Flores

I’m not sure what to make of a curious little book in my library.  A Profile of the Azorean is an offprint extracted from an academic paper on bilingual education published in the late 1970s. An online search revealed that the author, Onésimo T. Almeida, wrote the text as a guideline for workshops he held for teachers in New England and California dealing with Azorean immigrant students in bilingual programs.

In the introduction, Onésimo is careful to note that the rough characterizations of the Azorean sub-groups are not meant to perpetuate stereotypes but were included to help teachers understand the values, habits and beliefs of the Azorean immigrant children in their classrooms. More recently, the author referred to the papers as outdated since “much has changed in the Azores since the 1974 revolution that shook up Portugal.”

Outdated, yes, but these highly generalized character studies make for fascinating reading. The Azores were inhabited slowly over the course of two centuries by people who originated from the Iberian Peninsula, mainly from Portugal, but each island’s cultural history was further defined by the non-Portuguese who immigrated there. For example, Flores was settled primarily by Flemings in the early years of settlement whereas Terceira eventually attracted Sephardim Jews and Spaniards.  The eastern islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel saw greater numbers of people of southern Portuguese and North African settlement.  One has only to travel from one end of the archipelago to the other to observe the diversity of the Azorean people.

In this slender tract, Onesimo has collected observations of the Azorean character from several well-known islanders including the novelist Vitorino Nemésio and the nineteenth-century scientist and anthropologist Arruda Furtado.  He also includes remarks from “outsiders” like Joseph and Henry Bullar (A Winter in the Azores and a Summer at the Baths of Furnas, published in 1841) and the Portuguese writer Raúl Brandão.

I learn that Nemésio believed there were three major and distinct character types among the islanders, a view shared by Azorean ethnologist Luís Riberio: “The Micaelense is the hardest worker of the archipelago and is also the most different from the mainlander – rough, industrious, sturdy, and tenacious; while the Azorean from the Central and Western Islands is affable, somewhat cunning, fond of festivities, indolent; and finally, the Picaroto, dividing his time between land and sea, is vigorous, wholesome, sometimes heroic, and always takes life seriously.”

Nemésio, a native of Terceira, attributes the qualities of suave politeness and chivalry to the Terceirense noting that the islanders’ chivalry is “both testimony and legacy to a half-century’s occupation of Terceira by the Castillians.” However, he is particularly taken with the people of Pico and refers to them as the “cream of the islanders…He surpasses all other Azoreans in the seriousness of his life view, yet this seriousness is tempered, all the while, by an ingenuity that makes him triumphant in almost all of his endeavours. He is physically the most handsome…a great rifleman.”

What I found particularly interesting was the significance given to the roles of weather and geography in determining the nature of the islanders.  For example, the people of Terceira were considered the “most fun of the Azoreans” as were the people of Pico who “are generally more lively, agile and joyful. This latter trait usually attributed to the fact that Pico’s climate is dryer, sunnier and more healthful than on the other islands.”  On the other hand, Raúl Brandão experienced a sense of isolation among the people of Flores and Corvo which he attributes to the geography: “…the people are condemned to feeling lost, sentenced forever to the single unchanging view before them. An entire life faced by this, with nowhere to run other than death…glued to the windows beneath glass panes, sad faces of old people wait for longer than one can remember for someone to pass by, and no one passes by.”

Ribeiro refers specifically to the influence of the sea on the Azoreans:

“The contemplation of the sea makes men dreamers, saddens and depresses them with its monotony. The green of the land, the blue of the sea, sometimes dreadfully dark, sometimes whitened by the clouds, seen in the subdued and diffuse light filtered through the clouds, increase the sadness of the environment and spread sadness in the soul already downtrodden by the effect of the temperature. The sea is thus one more factor of the indolence of the saudosismo (nostalgia) of everything that makes the Azorean somnolent and apathetic … The rhythmic cadence of the waves and of the tides regulates his slow steps and wooden gestures, gives a tone to his drawl and song-like intonation, wrinkles his face and sharpens his sight.”

Online sleuthing uncovers several old public domain books which further delve into the behaviour, appearance and culture of the Azoreans – as perceived by outsiders – during the 19th century. In the 1878 book, The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure, American journalist and statesman Samuel Benjamin notes that the people of the Azores vary widely, in both appearance and disposition, from island to island. He deems the youth of Flores of “having a piquant beauty that is very attractive,” and considers the men and children of Sao Miguel to be especially beautiful. His highest praise is for the women of Pico who “are the handsomest of the Azores, finely formed, and with features of almost classic beauty. Their wealth of massive black tresses are done up in a simple beautiful braid, crowned by a straw hat or a scarlet cloth. Blithe and buxom, they seem to bear the burdens of life right merrily. Where ignorance is bliss, there is indeed no greater folly than to be wise.” Say what?  

Fortunately, the writer redeems himself with detailed descriptions of the radiant beauty of the islands and the industriousness of the natives.

My own family has roots in both Terceira and Flores. I would like to think that my relatives back home are cunning and fond of festivities but in truth, many of them are quite strange. I suspect there is something in the air in Flores besides “the deep fear of isolation” because people seem to go mad there. But that’s a story for another time…


Download: A Profile of the Azorean