The Language Barrier

Re-posted from Neverstationary

Never take for granted your ability to understand your parents.

My parents sit around our table sobremesa discussing important issues. I can understand primitive phrases but I can’t get a clear idea of how my parents make their decisions, which I presume to be talked through and deeply analyzed.

Some people don’t face language barriers within their own families, but instead they hole up in their rooms or leave the house after dinner, leaving their own twenty-first century experiences to designate and dictate their beliefs.

The thing is…while your parents may have been born in another century and perhaps even another country, their experiences are still wholly relevant; lots of the lessons they’ve learned are universal and timeless.

There are two ways to learn from your parents.

The direct method fails for me, because it’s essentially the only way I’ve learned anything from my parents. It devolves to a lecture, devoid of detail and largely redundant.

As a first-generation Asian-American, I crave the indirect, but I can only learn in English. My parents, however, cannot meaningfully convey their ideas as well in English as they can in Chinese. Their first dialect is most descriptive and transcends the bare necessities of just communicating general ideas.

I can never listen in on my parents’ late night conversations when they choose special Chinese phrases or metaphors to convey their sentiment.

It’s not something that you realize suddenly, but gradually, as you find that tuning into their evening discussions is a fundamental experience that lots of kids these days take for granted.

Even my fictional heroine can eavesdrop on the conversations between the adults in her life.

Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn frequently bends an ear towards the chats between her mother Katie and her father Johnny, Katie and her Aunt Sissy, and more. Her snooping allows her to acquire most of her insights and realizations about the larger world around her.

It’s hard to communicate with my grandparents and relatives too; language is essential, especially if lots of them live on the other side of the world. Gifts and other gestures don’t cut it.

When I was a toddler, I was nearly fluent in Chinese. After being enrolled in American preschool, however, I managed to lose it all.

To artificially restore my bilingual abilities, I was enrolled in a Chinese class on the weekends and painfully force-fed the language like a chicken.

My speaking skills were solidified through travel but waned over time, lost in the dominance of the American culture, to the extent that when I speak my native language, I have an unfortunate American accent.

English has become my main language after four years of intense SAT vocabulary, a year of blogging, an eloquent high school policy debate career, and a lifetime of immersing myself in words and culture.

Seldom at a loss for words, I’d consider myself well-versed in the English language.

In regards to Spanish, on the other hand, I am nearly incompetent. I have no clue how I passed the AP exam last year. Vocabulary comes easily through rote memorization but verb tenses slay me.

If business deals were my game, I’d be content. I can get basic ideas across lingual divides, but I’m ultimately not satisfied with my “mastery” of the Chinese language.

So if you can, don’t take your ability to communicate for granted. Instead of holing up, sit on the stairs and learn something new.

Catherine Zhang About Catherine Zhang
Catherine's a high school-college in-betweenie, and is constantly evolving. She loves music and writing, and you can find both at her main blog:

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