By Pardeep Toor
English was the first language my newborn heard after his birth in October 2021, probably something medical the midwife said, or congratulations from a nearby nurse. My wife and I were speechless, focusing only on our son’s blue skin, piercing screams, and block of black hair that overwhelmingly confirmed he was indeed ours.
As first-time parents, our son instantly became the exclusive lens through which we viewed our world. I should’ve gotten new windshield wipers to make sure we reached home safely. Next time, I will take my elevated bilirubin levels seriously. My wife swore to get the spot on her retina checked again. She couldn’t remember the last time we’d dusted underneath our bed. We’d prepared nine months for this shift, but it still shook us. Our lives were only necessary to sustain his life.
We couldn’t stay speechless for long. The nurses eventually checked on us less frequently. Poking and prodding clinicians dissipated, leaving us with the humming overhead tube lights and beeping in the hallway. It was our turn to talk to our son, but what would we say?
English wasn’t the first language for either of us. My wife is a native Spanish speaker and I exclusively spoke Punjabi for the first six years of my life. We both acquired English through our respective educations in Colombia and Canada. We promised to give our son both our languages, despite failing to acquire them from each other.
English is our essential language, a primary means of communication that allows us to thrive as a couple, while simultaneously pulling us away from our native languages and cultures. Each spoken syllable of English is a leap away from our rolling “Rs” in Punjabi and Spanish. I’m not demonizing English, rather recognizing the challenge of its dominance in our lives.
In the past four months, we’ve obsessed over speaking our respective languages to our son. It’s turned into a game: My wife will say something to him in Spanish, I’ll ask what she said, she tells me in English, and then I translate it into Punjabi and say it louder and faster back to our son as if his comprehension is a race we’re each trying to win. It’s partly in fun — but also stems from a sincere apprehension. We’re trying to pass down our languages while preserving them in our own lives.
Regardless of our efforts, English will inevitably become the common language that my wife and I share with our son. It’s the only way we can talk to him without isolating each other. In doing so I’m afraid I’ll continue to lose my native Punjabi and our son will forever lose something he could have had.
This struggle isn’t exclusive to our family. The loss of language has been extensively explored in the following essays.
The Pain of Losing Your First Language (Kristin Wong, Catapult, December 2021)
This essay outlines the suffering Wong endured since foregoing her native language as a child for the sake of assimilating into America. Wong does a phenomenal job of incorporating linguistic research in her analysis, giving academic weight to her regrets. The balance of personal narrative and analysis of English language adoption and native attrition flows through the essay as studies confirm Wong’s feelings, yet don’t free her from longing for her first language. “I wonder what Cantonese words my brain pushed out when I started speaking mostly English at age six. And is attrition limited to words? What else did I lose to assimilate?”
During her pregnancy, Wong commits to re-learning her native Cantonese so she can pass it on to her child. However, despite her efforts, she feels the impossibility of her task.
Like learning how to spell only, the more I look at Jyutping, the more the words start to make sense. But part of me knows better. I’ll never speak Cantonese the same way I would have if I’d never stopped speaking it to begin with. Like a phantom limb, the memory of my first language stays with me even with it gone, but that’s all it is: a memory. It occurs to me that trying to relearn this language is the embodiment of my bicultural identity. The American in me is determined to reclaim the Chinese part of myself.
Why Do I Write in My Colonizers’ Language? (Anandi Mishra, Electric Literature, March 2021)
Part of the struggle with English has always been its foreignness. The language either forcefully invaded foreign lands or immigrants willingly chose to move west. Mishra addresses the colonial legacy of English and how that makes her feel “queasy,” while also recognizing the language’s modern dominance in India.
For my family, friends, relatives, and teachers, English was seen as a language of access. It could land you better jobs, remove limitations, and open up avenues. English speakers were high achievers, often conflated with the colonizers who ruled over us for about 200 years. It was ironic that the language of our colonizers was seen as aspirational, something that could lift us out of the discomfort that our parents’ mid-level jobs put us through. In reading all the subjects at school in English, we were made to understand that English was the language of possibilities.
Mishra reluctantly accepts the realities of the English language in India and her own life. But acceptance can also be an acknowledgment of adaptation — it’s not one or the other, English or Hindi, but hybridity that can hopefully be respectful to native languages and English’s injection into them.
Translation as an Arithmetic of Loss (Ingrid Rojas Contreras, The Paris Review, June 2019)
Rojas Contreras opens this essay by acknowledging, “When you live between languages, the conversion of meaning is an arithmetic in loss.” Thoughts generated in one language come out awkwardly in English, or sometimes not at all. This ultimately leads to a feeling of “being understood sufficiently, rather than fully.”
This loss between languages catalyzed Rojas Contreras to write her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, in English, even though she thought of it in Spanish. She constructed the sentences in Spanish in her mind but then immediately translated them into English on the page.
Why didn’t you write the novel in Spanish? This is a question I get all the time. Language is one of the things you sacrifice when you migrate. I wanted to be true to the toll of that sacrifice by making visible what exactly was being lost.
My wife loves Rojas Contreras’s writing. She sees both her own Spanish and English in the syntax. It’s how she sees the world, in a constant state of translation from one language to another. By seeing Rojas Contreras’s translated language on the page, my wife sees her worldview being expressed as a reality and feels understood as an immigrant in the United States.
Teaching Yourself Italian (Jhumpa Lahiri, The New Yorker, November 2015)
Lahiri, an internationally renowned fiction writer, started writing from scratch in Italian to escape the personal weight of the English language.
Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me. For practically my whole life, English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.
Lahiri opted not to re-engage with her native Bengali, which she spoke with an accent and admitted to not knowing how to read or write. She started anew with Italian, placing herself in a linguistic exile, far removed from her familial past in Bengali and professional life in English. Native languages, and the projected cultural expectations that come with them, can be as burdensome as chasing a distorted and romanticized memory or history. Lahiri’s fresh start in Italian vanquishes the obligation of chasing ghosts from her past and allows her to forge a novel identity in a new language.
Ghosts (Vauhini Vara, The Believer, August 2021)
What happens when all languages fail? When you’re unable to express yourself no matter how many languages you can speak? That’s where the future comes in. Vara, unable to express grief after losing her sister, turned to an algorithm to complete her thoughts.
I felt acutely that there was something illicit about what I was doing. When I carried my computer to bed, my husband muttered noises of disapproval. We both make our livings as writers, and technological capitalism has been exerting a slow suffocation on our craft. A machine capable of doing what we do, at a fraction of the cost, feels like a threat. Yet I found myself irresistibly attracted to GPT-3—to the way it offered, without judgment, to deliver words to a writer who has found herself at a loss for them.
What followed was an experiment in human-computer interactions. Vara feeds words into Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3) and the remaining text is predicted, with the details Vara provides about her sister determining how the narrative ends — technology offering a borderless universal language with infinite memory.
The nine stories completed by artificial intelligence in this piece are something new, void of human attachment. Culture in an algorithm. Is this how people will one day express themselves and understand their upbringing? Then what remains of the cultural nuances embedded in our native languages? Are one or two or three languages enough for our son? Are they the right languages? What if they all fail him? The fear of losing our language and culture to algorithms and English inspires us to transmit what we have left amidst our loss.
Pardeep Toor‘s writing has appeared in the Best Debut Short Stories 2021: The PEN America Dau Prize, Catapult, Electric Literature, Southern Humanities Review, Midwest Review, and Great River Review.