Lost Language and Compromised Confidence

Recently, an interesting article regarding the impact adoptees’ “lost languages” leaves on their brains has been circulating all of my feeds. The study indicates that the same areas of the brain become active when bilingual people listen to one of their languages also becomes active when adoptees hear their first language.


Kate Watkins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said this study had interesting implications for those, like myself, who may choose to “relearn” their first languages. “It would suggest that someone who had this very short exposure would have an advantage if they wanted to learn this language again. If your brain is wired up to detect these [sound] categories you are probably going to have an easier time learning the language,” she said.

Despite what Watkins’ hypothesis may be, I have found my Chinese class to be one of the most difficult classes during my college years. I have taken classes on gender based violence, race and ethnicity, Chinese literature and film, yet Chinese language class hast been the most academically and emotionally taxing. I’ve decided to share a letter I wrote to myself that shows my struggles and feelings around relearning Mandarin.


A letter to my rational self from my emotional self:

Dear Rational Self,

You say it’s natural to struggle when learning a new language, especially a language as difficult as Mandarin. But you don’t understand how it hurts me in the core when I forget a word, a grammar pattern, a definition. I long for these words to float lightly off the tip of my tongue instead of feeling heavy and obtrusive and unnatural. I know it’s irrational, but I feel as though these words should flow through my body like the blood in my veins, but they don’t. They don’t. They’re stilted. They’re foreign. They’re awkward. And why? I should be good at this.

You remind me that I was just a three year old when I came to the United States and that three year olds aren’t fluent in any language. You tell me I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, but it doesn’t work. In my heart, Mandarin was my first language. These were the words I heard all around me for the first three years of my life. My first family spoke to me in this language. When I imagine my 妈妈 mama comforting me and drying my toddler tears, she holds me on her lap and speaks softly to me in Mandarin. When I imagine my 爸爸 baba showing me the world, he holds me in his arms, and follows my lead as I point to objects, and Mandarin words trickle out of his mouth. When I struggle to learn Mandarin, I struggle to maintain a connection to my first family and my first self.

You tell me not to worry about the grades and the red ink staining my tests and homework assignments with judgement. But how can I not worry? The grades I receive are not just a reflection on my academic performance and my achievement as a student, they are a reflection on my potential ability to attain fluency, to be able to immerse myself in Chinese culture, to finally feel balance between my Chinese and American identities.  This language means so much to me, and my grades should reflect that. But they don’t.

In the United States, I will always be a hyphenated American, never truly “American” enough. Yet, I remain an outsider in China as well, even though I am surrounded by a sea of faces that resemble mine. I’ve taken Chinese film and literature courses, studied the history and proudly wear my Chinese face. My inability to speak Mandarin is the largest obstacle barring me from a sense of belonging in my homeland. And for once, somewhere, someplace, it would be nice to simply pass – to just exist without having questions thrown at me from every angle. My difficulty relearning my first language diminishes the hope I have for this dream.

You advise me to ignore the other students in my class and to focus on my own growth. It is so incredibly hard to do that when unwanted feelings of jealousy and bitterness creep into my heart because other students understand the language better than me. Why should the student taking Chinese only to fulfill a language requirement have a better grasp of the language that should be my mother tongue? I know it’s juvenile, but all I can think is it’s not fair.

Whenever I am called on and open my mouth, but no words come out, I feel only shame and embarrassment. I feel inadequate as a Chinese person. I know several adoptees who have tried and tried and have never been able to relearn their first languages. When I yearn for smooth language acquisition, I can feel their grief and my grief coupled together.

You want a divorce and to completely takeover language learning, but I don’t think I can let go.  The end result of this linguistic journey is not a high powered translating job or a completed requirement to accomplish some task; it’s simply to feel balanced and whole as a person. Help me do this. Together, I think we can.


Emotional Self


12 responses to “Lost Language and Compromised Confidence

  1. Dear Friend, you should know that some people find it easy to learn a language, and some find it hard. This difference has nothing to do with your early life, but rather with the way your brain is wired to learn. If you were trying to learn English from Chinese, you would have similar difficulty Trust me. I am a native English speaker. I learned Spanish in high school, and after 4 years spoke and wrote it almost as well as a native. I learned German in college. I learned a little French after that. And after I adopted my daughters from China, I learned a wee bit of Chinese. Chinese is a lot harder than the other languages I have learned. Hearing and duplicating the tones is really difficult. I can do it well only if I am singing a little song in Chinese. So, be easy on yourself. It is not a moral flaw, nor a defect in your “Chineseness”. I know several Chinese-American young people, born here, who do not speak Chinese and have found it hard to learn, just as you do.


    • I studied German for nearly six years. Though I haven’t used it for two years, I’ve retained a lot of vocabulary. The difficulty I’m having with learning Mandarin comes from how inextricably tied the language is to my identity, which was not the case with German or the other bits of languages friends have taught me over the years.


  2. Please don’t get discouraged! I was in a similar situation myself when I was a kid. I was born and raised in my hometown, Hong Kong, yet I have studied in an international school my whole life (and now uni in London).
    My Chinese was never as good as students who transferred from local schools and soon I felt so discouraged that I simply wanted to skip all the Chinese classes..
    Only when I studied IB in year 12 did I finally learn how to enjoy Chinese classes – because my teacher was amazing and she helped us bloom instead of judge us through test grades.

    Find the most enjoyable way for you to learn Chinese, and you will soon look past your negative emotions.
    Remember life is about improvement within your own self, it’s never a competition with others! X

    Anna x


  3. Thanks so much for this touching and resonant post. I was adopted from South America and have encountered similar obstacles with respect to my inability to speak Spanish. Obviously this means our experiences aren’t totally analogous, but nonetheless I really empathize with what you said about feeling like an outsider in your birth culture despite your best efforts. The part about feeling jealous of people who are more adept at the language despite not being connected to it culturally also really hit home – it feels irrational, but when you’re excluded from your culture b/c of lack of language proficiency, it’s not simply a matter of grades anymore. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you, from one adoptee to another, that you are not alone in this experience, and that I’m sure we will figure it out somehow, together.


  4. @Linnea your message is intended to be encouraging, but you discount and project instead. No where in the post is anything about the author’s early life accounted for in the letter from Emotional Self about the difficulty of learning Mandarin. The letter addresses feelings of loss and anger and jealousy. It kills us ICAs to see white adopters and even people not part of the adoption community speaking our languages, especially when they have more language skills than we do, for whatever reason, and especially when they’re praised so much for even a smattering of knowledge whereas we’re told our language skills are deplorable because we look like we should speak like native speakers, just as our non-adopted heritage speaking community-mates (who may also not bet fluent) are told.


  5. Though mandarin is considered the official chinese language, it’s not likely the first language a child will learn first. Mandarin is first thing a child will learn at school. Depending on the dialect of region, mandarin can be almost a foreign language. I only spoke cantonese until I enter school.
    When I was Jiang xi to adopt my daugthter, I asked the guide to teach me some phrases in the local dialect so i can talk to my child. Something she would have heard in her womb. The guide told me her local dialect is very different from where my child coming from Which is only couple hundred miles away. She can only speak mandarin and her local dialect herself.

    Therefore, your first language may not have been mandarin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true. My daughter was from Xin Yi in the Guangdong province. She could understand the Cantonese spoken by our guide, but no one could understand anything she said in her local dialect, which was apparently the only language she spoke (not quite 4 years old). Within a week, she was using English phrases (Hold my hand) as she heard them, but we knew what she meant. Children are amazing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • My daughter was adopted at 5 months old. At three half years old, she speaks fluent cantonese and English. After 2 months of mandarin immersion preschool, she pretty much understands mandarin and can speak quite bit of mandarin.
        I have no idea what the foster parents spoke. I know the director spoke fluent mandarin without accent. Judging from the region she’s from, I am pretty sure her birth family did not speak mandarin amongst themselves.

        Just remember, the current chinese president is the first chinese leader speaks mandarin without an accent in of its entire 60 years history.

        Liked by 1 person

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