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Immigrant Children and Lost Language

The other day I met a Chinese-born student at a volunteer event. I told her that I was born in America with immigrant parents. Her response was, “so you can’t speak Chinese”. I was automatically flustered, as it was not far from the truth. Her words had no malicious intent, but I still felt ashamed that I had lost a connection to my own heritage. I found myself scrambling for justifications–that I still could understand Mandarin, that my poor pronunciation was because I was raised in predominantly white communities, and that Chinese was actually the first language I learned. But all those reasons don’t matter because I continue to lose grasp on my native language. 

I still question what had happened in the past few years of my life–what caused my Chinese to deteriorate to the point I was starting to sound like an American trying to speak the language. At some point, I stopped talking to my parents in Chinese and only answered in English. My answer to “Are you fluent?” started to change. It more so went along the lines of “Uh…I can understand it well”. The loss of language was never a conscious choice and not society’s blame. I had all the resources in front of me: my parents at home and my grandparents, who were only one phone call away. 

I know many others in this generation have similar experiences and share collective feelings of regret. With loss of language, comes loss of identity. Coming to college or at any point entering adulthood, everyone feels the need to find their sense of self and the isolation was only enhanced when I could barely talk to my grandparents. I still struggle to find ways to connect with my culture when it feels like I have put it behind me for most of my life, but I have come to learn that I can find it right in front of me, even though it can feel oceans away. 

This school offers clubs for every possible identity and other subgroups. They host celebrations and find a way to keep their culture alive. I hear of students practicing their home language together to make sure they remember it. I try to occasionally speak Chinese with my roommate so when I visit her over the summer, I can actually hold a conversation with her grandma. As children of immigrants, we are tasked with the responsibility of shaping our cultural identities on American soil. With no leading example on how that should look, it’s challenging and confusing. But I can only hope we can continue to remember and stay connected to our histories.

Theresa Liu

U Mich '24

Sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Financial Mathematics
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