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.