Reflecting on the lost language of my childhood

A student shares how her relationship with her native language grew from dread to appreciation.

When people ask me how many languages I speak, I hesitate.  

My family hails from Macedonia, a tiny country above Greece, and for centuries, my ancestors have used the Macedonian language to communicate with one another. My mother was the first in our family to be born in America, but she didn’t learn English until elementary school. 

When I was born, my mother wanted me to follow the same path she did growing up. As a baby, I was learning how to define the world around me in Macedonian, the same way my family had for centuries before.

But as a child, I was ignorant to how interesting and valuable being bilingual is. Later in life I learned to appreciate it, but by then, it was too late. My first language, Macedonian, is just a phantom limb to me now. When I think about how I let such a significant part of my identity slip away, I feel a wave of regret.

My mother’s environment forced her to use Macedonian every day. As an only child with immigrant parents, it was her responsibility to help translate between English and Macedonian during everything from doctors’ visits to parent-teacher conferences. 

My Macedonian began to fade away as soon as I started picking up English from “Barney and Friends” on television. When I was old enough to go to school, my teachers and peers were saying “hello” and “good morning,” not “zdravo” or “dobro utro.” I remember feeling at odds with my mom’s expectation that I speak Macedonian at home. It felt extraneous for me to keep using this language that I thought had no use in my life since all my friends spoke English.

It’s not that I hated speaking Macedonian, but living in a separate culture at home as a kid made me feel different from my friends. I associated speaking Macedonian with some of the other things my family did differently, like how we never celebrated Easter around spring break like my peers did, or how we held hands and danced in circles at weddings. It all made me feel out of place.

To try and fit in with my friends, I distanced myself from my language and my culture. When I came home from school, I insisted on speaking English. I even begged my mom to pack me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of my grandma’s leftover mandza, a Macedonian stew.

My turning point came in eighth grade when I visited my extended family in Macedonia. The country was so different from home, but it was so beautiful. For the first time, I was in a community that reflected my family’s culture. I relished the delicious food, fun dancing and lively music of my heritage. I was excited and proud to be related to such unique people in my extended family. 

I soon realized what I had missed out on by neglecting my cultural language.

When I met my cousins for the first time, I struggled to communicate with them. Searching for the right words to say felt like I was scrambling through a box of puzzle pieces. One of my uncles made me feel guilty whenever I had to stall mid-conversation and search for the right word. 

I realized then that the language I had neglected was what connected me to my family’s culture. 

My slow, choppy ability to converse in my heritage language made me feel like a phony. If I couldn’t speak the tongue, could I still call myself Macedonian? 

Recognizing the error in my ways was the first step in a long journey of reconnecting with my heritage. I now see the value of being bilingual and try to improve my fluency by practicing with my grandparents. The longer I wait between our calls, the more anxious I feel in my use of the language. I still choke on words, and often find myself stalling, racking my brain for the right phrases.

If only I could go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry about wanting to assimilate and behave like every other kid in the United States.

Seeing diverse representation in cartoons, comics and other children’s media today excites me. I want kids who feel like they don’t fit in with their friends because of their culture to see themselves represented in the media. It is important for them to know that their culture is valuable. 

I still feel a sense of guilt when my friends overhear me on the phone with my grandparents. As soon as I’m done speaking to them, they turn to me wide-eyed and full of questions. I can’t help but feel like I’m deceiving them into believing I’m more competent than I am. In actuality, I have such a fuzzy grasp on speaking Macedonian. Part of me feels ashamed, like I should shield my identity from others to avoid their attention. 

But I have learned my lesson. I won’t let myself hide or neglect my culture again. My mother gave me an amazing lifelong gift by teaching me my heritage language. Even though I didn’t recognize the value of it as a child and only retained some of the language, she’s given me the foundation to keep learning it and appreciate my culture. Hopefully, I can pass the same onto my children someday.

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