Like a good son, I called my mom on Mother’s Day. I’ve always spoken Korean with her — despite the fact that my parents immigrated to California from South Korea in the 1970s, she never really had a chance to immerse herself in the English language, even as she worked as a hotel maid, liquor store cashier and sushi cook. My dad always had the knack for dealing with foreign languages and business affairs, whether that meant haggling with suppliers or shooting the shit with our Latino customers. I guess my mom, already a bit shy and reserved thanks to her country-girl upbringing, never really took much to English.
This hasn’t always been easy, given that my own Korean is limited to fluent-adjacent speech. I can only read at a kindergarten level, and writing is a no-go, but speaking was a strength. But while describing an argument I had with my girlfriend the other week on the phone, I tripped over a word that I’d never had a problem with before: “stubborn.”
It’s the one word I believed had been seared into my head, given that it was my parents’ favorite adjective for my attitude while growing up. I stammered on the phone while trying to figure it out, and from the other end of the line, I heard a laugh and the universal Korean lamentation of disappointment, “Ayyy-gooooo.”
“So you graduate from a fancy American school and write for a magazine and forget your Korean, hmm?” my mom mocked, with her usual tender tone. “This is troubling. What if you lose it forever and can’t speak to your dad and I?”
This simple mistake got me spiraling. I sputtered some more before trying to say that I’ve uttered the word for “stubborn” a million times, but I got to the numeral before realizing I’d also forgotten the word for “million.” My mom laughed again, this time accented with a neat “tsk-tsk-tsk.”
It might have been amusing to her, but it reminded me of all those times I’d blown up as an emotional 16-year-old while struggling to argue with my parents because of my lack of vocabulary. It made we wonder, yet again, how close to my heritage I really was, though my uncles and aunts had always doted on me at group gatherings for being the rare American-born kid in the family who spoke the mother tongue (albeit with a so-called “cute” accent). What the hell did it mean for me to start losing that in the most formative decade of my adulthood?
Turns out, this is a familiar story for all kinds of people who grew up in a household hearing a non-English main language. Olga Lexell, a 26-year-old who lives in L.A., tells me how she moved to the U.S. as a five-year-old, leaving behind Ukraine. The homeland of her mother and grandparents was reeling after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the family rebuilt their lives in Chicago, continuing to speak their native language, a Russian-Ukrainian hybrid called Surzhyk, at home.
It’s a language that varies depending on where you lived and spoke it, and Lexell says she’s always been more fluent in the Russian side of Surzhyk. But since moving to L.A. nine years ago for school and work, Lexell has noticed a slow and steady decline in her fluency. Recently, she made a blunder that seemed almost hard to believe: On a postcard to her grandfather, Lexell spelled her first name incorrectly in Russian. “My name in Russian is pronounced ‘Ohl-ya,’ but I put the wrong vowel. My grandpa was like, ‘That’s not your name,’” she says. “It’s weird, because I can feel it slipping every time I talk to my mom and grandparents. Just little things I forget. I actually started studying Spanish in high school, and became fluent in that, and there are moments when I’ll forget a Russian word and blurt it out in Spanish by accident. My grandparents do guilt me over it a lot.”
Lexell says her rusty language skills seem to be eroding a connection to her family and heritage. Her grandparents don’t speak English at all (unlike her mother), which means communication will wither if she loses the little Russian she has today. “Language is such a huge part of our identity as a family. Living in the Soviet Union is such an important part of my family,” Lexell says. “It’s strange that I barely speak Russian and can’t speak Ukrainian basically at all.”
Language experts have long debated the differences between learning a language in a formal setting like a school and learning it at home through organic communication. While the definitions are still disputed, generally speaking, Lexell and I are examples of people who learned a “first language” by being immersed in it during early childhood. You can have multiple first languages if you’re raised in a multilingual household, and those who grow up speaking a minority first language (say, Korean in the U.S.) are said to have a “heritage language.”
The basic takeaway is that timing and environment matter to how you learn and retain fluency, says Gayle Fiedler-Vierma, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Southern California who is an expert on first languages. “First languages develop cognitively,” she explains. “At a young age, you’re developing mental representation of ideas at the same time you’re acquiring the linguistic means to describe that representation. It’s a common phenomenon in the case of young immigrants, and this definition doesn’t include, say, the professor parents who decide to teach their kids German because they think it’s good for them to know.”
The concept of heritage language has a million permutations IRL because of the variables in a person’s upbringing, level of assimilation in the U.S. and the personal need (or lack thereof) to further develop that first language. Lexell grew up around Russian and Ukrainian communities in Chicago, but immigrants generally weren’t that common in her school. “All I wanted was to fit in,” she says. It was a notion her mother reinforced: “My grandparents would always tell my mom to speak to me in Russian at home, and she said no, because she wanted me to speak English.”
The pressure to assimilate in an unfamiliar country is a powerful force, and its impact can linger well beyond childhood and adolescence. Like Lexell, Esther Tseng, a Taiwanese food writer in L.A., cites a need to fit in as a reason why she lost touch with her heritage language skills at a young age. Unlike Lexell, she isn’t an immigrant — her parents moved from Taiwan to the U.S. in the late 1960s, settling in Kansas before moving to Milwaukee in 1978, a year before Tseng was born. She grew up in the town of New Berlin, Wisconsin, and Asian faces were hard to come by, especially in school halls. Tseng recalls the casual racism that often stung her (“One kid in high school would randomly whisper ‘KKK’ in my ear, just to upset me”), and the clarity with which she saw her foreignness compared to the overwhelmingly white student body.
Her own parents went all-in on assimilating into American culture. They always bought a domestic car (Tseng remembers an Oldsmobile, Plymouth and Chevy through the decades) and had a rule of speaking English in public. They were comfortable with Tseng speaking to them in English as they spoke to her in Taiwanese. Even the simple fact that Tseng attended a Chinese church was a liability, of sorts, in her eyes. “There was one Chinese church in all of Milwaukee, and I wouldn’t want to run into anyone from my high school around there. I’d be embarrassed. Because that would ruin my ability to have, like, assimilation cred,” Tseng says with a short, sharp laugh. “You wanted that support group from your ethnic community, but you were risking outside cred by engaging it, if that makes sense.”
The other complicating factor was the political and cultural split between Taiwan and China. Tseng’s parents were deeply supportive of Taiwanese independence, and “hated” traditional Mandarin. Some of Tseng’s Chinese friends attended language school to maintain and grow fluency, but she got to dodge that responsibility. In fact, settling into life in Wisconsin was so vital that Tseng didn’t really consider what she lost by never learning to speak the heritage language she could at least understand by ear. “I started losing the ability to understand maybe after I moved out of the house and left for college at UCLA,” she says. “But that feeling of missing out really kicked in when I visited Taiwan as a teenager. I ended up doing that kind of regularly, and it was such a cultural shock.”
Different ethnic groups experience differing levels of assimilation pressure, Fiedler-Vierma says, with a number of factors that shape the desire to encourage or quash native language ability. Access to densely populated ethnic communities (say, L.A.’s Koreatown or the Chinese enclave in Flushing, New York) and the prevalence of institutions like native-language churches can help encourage the maintenance of a heritage language, including for younger generations. The education level of the parents can also be a predictor for a child’s ability to develop a first language — a restricted vocabulary and inability to explain grammar to a child, for instance, can stunt their first language or even create shameful association to language.
Javier Cabral, a Mexican-American journalist in L.A., grew up helping his parents read and write Spanish from a young age, helping them translate unfamiliar letters and sound out words. His mother and father left the Mexican state of Zacatecas to enter the U.S. in the 1950s, and they still don’t speak English, Cabral says. Though he can read, write and speak Spanish fairly well today, he tells me that he still has emotional hang-ups over the fact that he learned a more rustic “Rancho Spanish” — “For the lack of a better term, uneducated Spanish,” as he puts it.
That became clear when he met his wife, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico about a decade ago. Her pointing out the mistakes in his speech fueled a sort of identity crisis, Cabral says. It doesn’t help that a stutter, for which he received rigorous treatment in childhood, still breaks out on occasion when he speaks Spanish (and never English). “In the past, I had this anger because I couldn’t speak it properly, and it’s just like, a feeling that… I dunno, if my wife cusses me out in Spanish during an argument, it’ll hurt a lot more, you know?” he says. “There’s a lot of sentimental, emotional issues that you confront when you think about your culture and language. There are a lot of psychological ties.”
Those ideas of cultural identity are muddied even further if your family’s roots wind back through time in complicated ways. Language can bring clarity to lineage, and that’s certainly been my experience as I’ve embraced both my heritage and my ability to speak Korean. But language can also leave more questions than answers about what elements of your identity are most critical. My colleague Hussein Kesvani is the son of East African Indian parents. They can trace their roots to Gujarat, in West India, but two generations of Kesvanis grew up in Uganda before the forcible expulsion of Asians started in 1972. There, they spoke Urdu and Swahili alongside Kutchi, a dialect spoken in parts of Gujarat. But leaving Uganda and resettling as refugees in England meant a permanent shift toward English.
“People think of East African Indians as kind of a good immigrant group that integrated, learned how to speak English, made up businesses, very kind of upper-middle-class,” Kesvani says. “I can speak parts of Kutchi, but I don’t speak it as well as my parents, and I very rarely have to. Even with my cousins, I speak English. We were taught English is the priority, first and foremost. Part of that is we don’t really have a connection to the motherland. None of my family have gone back to India, because they don’t feel a need to.”
This has created a conundrum of sorts for Kesvani. His parents and the extended family have a sense of acceptance they’ll be the last generation to speak Kutchi, he says. In their pragmatic eyes, holding onto that mother language is non-essential, given that it’s a smaller dialect that isn’t particularly helpful around India or the world. But Kesvani sees his role differently: “You end up questioning your own legitimacy as a person with that heritage because, well, if I can’t respond to you in our mother tongue, does that mean I failed as a next generation? Does that mean that I still have the right to make decisions within our community? There are no rules around that.”
That’s similar to the anxiety Lexell feels when she considers her homeland today. The last five years of violent clashes between Russia and Ukraine over independent statehood has changed the cultural landscape — Russian language and culture has fallen out of favor in much of Ukraine, in favor of the native language. “I have family in Crimea, which is being annexed by Russia right now, and a lot of people who have left are resigned to the fact that Russia will take over Ukraine again. If that happens, and they try to stamp out Ukrainian culture and the language, I feel like it would be my responsibility to know it,” she says. “But it’s weird because if I went back now, I wouldn’t really be able to talk to anyone because I speak more of a Russian hybrid of the language. I don’t speak pure Ukrainian. Meanwhile, most people in the U.S. don’t even know they’re completely different languages.”
Beyond the big questions of geopolitics around the globe, Lexell has realized practical limitations of her so-so fluency, too. She claims to have the vocabulary “of a 10-year-old,” which makes it borderline impossible to discuss adult topics like the anxiety of being broke or the health of her grandparents. It’s motivated her to start taking online language lessons in both languages, and she makes sure to flex new skills on phone calls with her grandparents. Something decidedly out of her comfort zone, however, was reaching out to find other Russian-Ukranian immigrants in L.A. “It’s been really helpful. There’s one Ukranian restaurant and one Russian restaurant here, so we’ll go and they’ll be blasting Russian TV and we’ll talk to everyone. That’s really nice.”
Fiedler-Vierma points out that first languages, like many things learned in early childhood, are retained in ways that make them basically impossible to “forget” in the conventional sense of the word. The learning process and information are still stored inside your head, she says, which is encouraging for people who want to re-develop some kind of fluency. But that decision is rarely an easy or obvious one. Tseng tells me about how she views learning Taiwanese as a “massive undertaking” at her age, when there are a million other tasks filling up her calendar. Communication with her family has changed, but not for the worse — Tseng speaks with her parents in English without issue. She’s proud of her brother for choosing to delve into the language, but has bittersweet feelings about trying that herself.
I don’t have the option to speak to my parents and grandmother in English, and delving into others’ stories has motivated me to engage my own language ability more. Maybe what I need to do is find more young Korean men and women to be around, but that inspires a weird stress in me that’s connected to baggage about my racial identity. Instead, I plan on firing up some online lessons like Lexell, with the hopes I can impress my mom instead of stumbling through garbage grammar for the thousandth time on the phone.
In the meantime, there’s always the internet’s trove of Korean soap operas. They make me think of my parents, who loved watching them on the living room TV despite my protestations. I turn on English subtitles, but keep my eyes off the translation until I don’t understand what’s going on. Then I roll the sounds of those Korean syllables in my mouth, again and again, until they feel familiar once more.