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The Language Barriers and Links in a MultiLingual Family

Growing up with multiple languages and cultures can mean barriers between family. But, there is beauty in finding common ground where there are gaps.

When something is “lost in translation,” it’s often also lost in cultural context. Knowing a language can strengthen your connection to a culture, and sometimes a language barrier can be a cultural barrier.

Every multilingual person can attest to the obstacles, but also to the links, that knowing more than one language can provide. It doesn’t always mean being able to communicate seamlessly, switching from one language to another. Sometimes you don’t know the word, so you say it in a different language. Sometimes it’s the continual need to translate. Sometimes you don’t want to say anything at all. Sometimes you just want to be understood.

My father is Japanese-Peruvian, my mother is Brazilian, and both ethnicities consist of their own mix of cultures. While my mother was the only one in her family to permanently leave Brazil, my father’s entire family eventually immigrated to the US. This led to my mother constantly speaking Portuguese with me since she would be my only source of that language growing up in California. With my father’s side of the family I could speak both Spanish and English. Eventually, I felt like my Spanish speaking didn’t develop much past my childhood skills since all my Spanish speaking relatives spoke English perfectly and that became my primary language.

Sometimes you don’t know the word, so you say it in a different language. Sometimes it’s the continual need to translate. Sometimes you don’t want to say anything at all. Sometimes you just want to be understood.

As an adult, the conversational topics I wanted to have grew more complex but my Spanish language skills did not keep up. This made me feel and sound far less intelligent than I wanted to. Speaking in Spanish with my father’s side of the family became frustrating. Their responses to me were often grammar and vocabulary corrections, rather than replies to my questions or comments. This language barrier was more noticeable when my grandmother, who predominantly spoke Spanish, would stay with us for long periods of time. We called her Oli because one of my cousins could not say “Abuelita,” the Spanish word for grandmother, when he was little.

Due to my lack of confidence in speaking Spanish, Oli and I did not develop that classic grandmother-grandchild relationship I often saw or heard about from friends or on TV shows. Oli and I did not discuss the telenovelas she would be watching, the recipes I wanted to learn, and more regrettably, I never asked her about her life in Peru or her life in the U.S. That’s a whole part of her past and her experiences, part of my own family story, that I never got from her. I wish I had established a stronger connection with Oli by simply talking to her more often, instead of allowing my lack of confidence to become a language barrier.

My mother, cousin Tina, Oli, and I at San Jose Obon mid-90s.

Never learning Japanese has been another sort of language and cultural barrier in my life. Even with my fluctuating skills in Spanish and Portuguese, I still learned so much through speaking these languages. I see societal nuances in Peruvian and Brazilian culture through the passion, slang words, and “machismo” within the Spanish and Portuguese languages. In contrast, the Japanese language, and with it many aspects of Japanese culture, were not passed down in my family.

My Ojiichan, who emigrated to Peru from Japan as a young boy, did his best to learn Spanish in his new home and he taught my father and his siblings very few words in Japanese. Unlike many of the other Japanese kids in my father’s neighborhood who attended Japanese school, my grandparents sent my father and his siblings to Catholic school, which was a very Peruvian thing to do at the time. Additionally, due to anti-Japanese sentiment after WWII in Peru, Japanese was mainly spoken in the home. Unfortunately, this was not the case for my father’s family. Although Oli’s father was Japanese, he died when she was young, and she grew up in Peru only speaking Spanish. Therefore, with Oli not speaking Japanese and Ojiichan spending a lot of time working, the Japanese language was never as strong as Spanish in my father’s Peruvian household.

Similarly, my own household saw a struggle for balance between multiple languages amidst a dominant culture. The only Japanese I grew up knowing were a few words that Ojiichan taught me just as he taught my father. Ojiichan passed away when I was young, but those few words I do know are a small, yet direct link from me to him and to my Japanese heritage. Still, I can’t help but think about acculturation: how as an immigrant, integration into the dominant culture can seem inevitable and maintaining a link to another one through language can be a difficult responsibility. This cultural push of one language can create a barrier to others.

My parents with Ojichan holding me.

These language barriers, both in and out of my control, are obstacles I have strived to break through. Some of my cousins didn’t grow up with the same emphasis on language learning so I know I am fortunate in my language skills, however much I may doubt them. I have come to recognize that despite the generational blockades, the lack of confidence, and the wavering skills—language has always been my strongest connection to who I am.

Being Japanese-Peruvian and Brazilian makes me an interesting mix to most, and a confusing explanation to some. On forms and applications with demographic questions I always check the “Other” box when asked for my ethnicity. Fortunately, I have language as my link to belonging when I feel excluded. My family and I can lean into the potentially confusing “Other” nature of our background. We laugh when we can’t understand the Japanese speaking spam calls and mail we receive simply because of our last name. I am delighted when someone in Brazil believes I am from São Paulo because my Portuguese is good enough, but I have a slight accent and look Japanese (there are a lot of Japanese descendants in São Paulo.) I find it incredible that in restaurants or stores, my father will speak Spanish to anyone who might have a Spanish-speaking accent and successfully befriends them by doing so.

We love a good birthday cake!

My mix of cultures has many positives, like the food and the destination options for family visits, but most intriguing is the unique blend of languages that give insight into who my family and I are. Our languages have created a distinct connection to our heritage and to our past which I will always be a part of no matter how many barriers I may encounter. I am connected to my Japanese heritage when my Uncle calls me by my Japanese middle name “Tami-chan.” I am connected to my Peruvian heritage when all my Aunts and Uncles are shouting and joking in Spanish over soccer games and holiday dinners. I am connected to my Brazilian heritage when my mom switches from speaking English to Portuguese because she can express herself better, and she knows I’ll understand her. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: understanding.

I am so grateful that even though I have often felt like an outsider, even within my own communities growing up, I will always have a family who speaks the same languages I do.

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Article featured in this issue:
Food, Family, and a Little Shopping
November 25, 2020

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