THE GREEN LINE
'I FEEL LIKE I'D LOSE MY IDENTITY'
KIDS OF IMMIGRANTS ON STRUGGLING TO LEARN THEIR PARENTS' NATIVE LANGUAGES
BY CASSIE ARGAO & SAMIRA BALSARA & PAULINE NASRI
The Green Line student reporters Cassie Argao, Samira Balsara and Pauline Nasri interviewed second-gen Canadians and immigrants who moved to Toronto at a young age about how connected they feel to their parents’ native languages.
April 20, 2022
People who originate from different backgrounds all come together in Canada, especially in Toronto, one of the most dynamic and diverse cities in the world.
Part of that diversity means that immigrants and their children gradually find a way to integrate themselves within the city while staying true to their cultural roots. But some second-generation Torontonians and immigrants who arrived here at a young age feel like they've lost a part of their core identity as they struggle to learn their parents' language.
Three second-generation Canadians spoke to The Green Line about their experiences and describe their complex relationship with language.
Nour Al-Saied, 22, is an artist and law student at Toronto Metropolitan University. She grew up speaking Syrian Arabic, and learned English in kindergarten when she moved from Dubai to Canada in 2002.
Although Al-Saied doesn't consider herself fluent in Syrian Arabic, she says speaking the language (e.g. knowing the names of certain foods) and being able to talk to Arab-speaking family members strengthens her connection to her culture.
"If I didn't know how to speak Arabic, I feel like I'd lose my identity," said Al-Saied.
As she gets older, Al-Saied adds that it's become harder for her to speak Arabic. In order to maintain her skills, she always makes an effort to speak Arabic with her dad, and orders food in the language at Arabic restaurants.
'THIS IS MY
Arjun Dhatt, a 20-year-old business student at Wilfrid Laurier University, described how his connection to his parents' culture was impacted by his inability to speak Punjabi.
Both of Dhatt's parents immigrated to Canada at a young age. His mother speaks Punjabi fluently, but his father was raised to prioritize speaking English over Punjabi.
"I feel like I'm Punjabi in every part. I just can't speak the language," he said. "And I think there is some shame around that."
Dhatt went on to describe how some family members would criticize him for not having learned the language growing up.
"I FEEL LIKE I'M PUNJABI
IN EVERY PART. I JUST CAN'T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. AND I THINK THERE IS SOME SHAME AROUND THAT."
BUSINESS STUDENT, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY
When he was in grade 12, Dhatt became interested in his parents' culture after listening to Punjabi music and researching Sikhism. He says this prompted a greater desire to learn his parents' native language and practice speaking it on a consistent basis.
Although Dhatt concedes that not being able to speak Punjabi poses a barrier when trying to connect with his roots, he says he still has a very strong relationship with his parents' culture and is proud to be Punjabi.
"This is my heritage," he said.
'I'LL BE TEACHING
MY KIDS SPANISH.'
Nicholas Mitri, 24, a counsellor at Sheridan College, was born in Canada and speaks Spanish fluently.
He would often get confused between English and Spanish as a child. When he was 5 years old, Mitri started attending Spanish school on Saturdays, and says he's retrospectively grateful to his parents for the forced lessons.
Mitri says his early confusion between languages was a challenge. But learning Spanish at such a young age, enabled Mitri to fully immerse himself in Argentinian culture, which is a big part of his life. He says he wants his future kids to experience the culture like he does.
"I do think it's important that we all try to learn our second language," Mitri adds.
'IT CAN BE A
There are notable barriers for second-generation children trying to learn their parents' language, however.
For example, a 2011 Statistics Canada study found that — perhaps counter-intuitively — women that are more educated are less likely to pass on their mother tongue to their children. Overall, the same study found that immigrant languages are passed onto 55 per cent of Canadian-born children under 18.
"It can be a real challenge," said Saskia Van Viegen, a professor of languages, literatures and linguistics at York University.
To help address that challenge, Van Viegen conducts research which involves working with teachers to identify strategies to integrate native languages spoken at home into class. Among her suggested approaches were the following:
- Curriculum policy documents should acknowledge multilingual practices and how significant they are in Ontario's education system.
- Teachers should ask students and their families for ideas for how to bring their native languages into the classroom.
- Teachers should use multilingual resources in class, such as videos, websites and news articles in various languages.
- Teachers should display their students' native languages by posting literacy tools, such as word walls and anchor charts, on classroom walls.
Van Viegen also shared some insight into how immagrant families work to maintain their native language in a new country.
It is common, for example, to experience a so-called "language shift" after immigrating to Canada — Van Viegen experienced one herself after she immigrated to Canada with her father at a young age.
What this entails is that the immigrating family stops using their native tongue as the primary language spoken at home, instead adopting another language. In her case, this meant a focus on speaking English in her household after they immigrated to Canada.
Van Viegen did add, however, that keeping up cultural and religious practices from one's home country helps maintain a connection to the native language.
CASSIE ARGAO &
SAMIRA BALSARA &
FOR THE GREEN LINE
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