Bilingual speakers face heartbreak of losing fluency in their mother language

By Kimberly Kapela, Echo magazine

Photo by Mikaela Helane.

Editor’s note: This article is from the Communication Department’s award-winning Echo magazine.

For first generation immigrants, the heartbreak that comes with forgetting a first language is a shared pain. I know this first-hand. I lost my mother language, Russian, at 7 years old when I went to predominantly English speaking classrooms and wasn’t surrounded by anyone who spoke Russian. Eventually, I stopped calling relatives overseas and got anxious when my mother handed me the phone.

Over time, words start to scramble, grammar becomes less complex and the mother language begins to coexist with the new language. The phenomenon of  “Oh, I forgot that word,” is commonly referred to as first language attrition. 

First language attrition occurs when bilingual speakers experience problems remembering some words or are blocked by a word from the other language, unable to retrieve the native one, according to the Language Attrition Network.

Native language attrition is reversible, but for many bilingual speakers, their first language is rooted with a deeper sense of identity, culture and socialization with other native speakers.

Nasim Ellahi, a first generation immigrant from Pakistan, lost touch with his mother language of Urdu when attending high school.

“Some of the barriers I experienced with forgetting my native language is not being able to communicate as fluently as I would like, especially with my mother or my family back home in Pakistan,” Ellahi says. “I think due to immigrants coming to America and trying to assimilate, American culture makes us forget about our native language, and it’s equally as hard for immigrants to keep track of two languages.”

Immigrants can also suppress their native language due to possible trauma when assimilating to American culture. Ellahi suppresses his language so he doesn’t become a target of a possible hate crime.

Ellahi’s advice for building inclusivity toward bilingual speakers is to appreciate that languages are “beautiful” and “unique,” instead of shaming them.

Before studying elementary and English as a second language (ESL) education, Jessica Riccelli seamlessly switched back and forth between English and Italian. She can understand Italian perfectly, but formulating sentences in her head to respond proves to be a harder task.

Riccelli grew up in an Italian household where her mother would speak Italian as the dominant language, but after turning 6, Riccelli was exposed to more English in grade school. Now, she senses an “awkwardness” speaking Italian while celebrating religious holidays with her family.

Her parents made the decision to speak English in the home to encourage the language. Due to their decision, Riccelli is relearning her Italian fluency, as it provides closure since the passing of her grandmother.

“I would love to be able to get that fluency back because it’s something that I miss, especially since my nona passed away,” Riccelli says. “I hope to be able to carry Italian on to my future kids and not lose it any more than I already have.”

Riccelli currently works with fifth grade students at Haynes Elementary in Chinatown, many of them have Mandarin as their first language. “[My approach to ESL education] allows students within the class to learn from other students because they have a lot more peer engagement and learning tips and tricks from students in their classroom versus only learning from an educator,” Riccelli says.

Riccelli sees a lot of bias when bilingual speakers don’t speak English in the U.S. “From an educator standpoint, I think there’s a lot of really cool things we can integrate into our classrooms,” Riccelli says. “We’re not only accepting these people, but you also have to be able to celebrate those differences and make all students aware of it.”

There are certain societal pressures for immigrants to fit into their new environments and communities. Sumana Syed is part of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia College Chicago and felt a “disconnect” growing up with her grandparents because she didn’t make an effort to learn Urdu.

When attending her local mosque, Syed prays with immigrants from India who only knew how to speak Urdu, so she couldn’t communicate with the worshippers. “I always felt disconnected from my roots in a way, but as I’m growing up, I started to make an effort to reconnect with my culture and have a new appreciation for it,” Syed says.

In her home state of Texas, Syed’s classmates took ESL classes where teachers would separate Spanish-speaking kids from English-native kids. Looking back, Syed wishes there had been  more chances for ESL students to share their mother languages to build a diverse community.

“It’s really cool how everybody communicates in different ways and how every language has its own tone and different way of expressing things,” Syed says. “Other languages express things in their own way, so I don’t think we should shy away from a language because it’s not our own language. [We] should be more open to exploring new languages and expressing them and learning from them.”

Gibel Cushing was born in the Philippines and later lost touch with the Tagalog language after moving to the U.S. When she visits family in the Philippines, it’s a challenging and alienating experience, she says, and the language barrier makes her feel like she’s not a full-fledged Filipino.

After moving to the U.S. in the ’90s, Cushing was placed into an ESL program that restricted her ability to speak English and Tagalog fluently. “I don’t think they [ESL instructors] have the preservation of being bilingual at the forefront of ESL education,” Cushing says.

Besides teaching AP statistics at Fenton High School, Cushing has an ESL endorsement and observed “great strides” in furthering ESL education and preserving cultures of Fenton’s students.

Cushing shows interest in students’ cultures by playing music from Spanish artists in her classrooms and learning their language. “I’ll try to speak Spanish to them in the classroom so that they get the sense that I really value their culture,” Cushing says. “I think with these little, tiny opportunities, I try to seek them out when I can, so I can make it very clear that my bilingual students are always welcome.”

Though Russian doesn’t feel as natural to me, the beauty of my first language can be celebrated through my family dinners, church gatherings and holidays.

You can read the entire 2022 issue of Echo, as well as previous issues, on our website.