The Parent-Child Language Barrier

Nina Naidu describes her experience growing up in a multi-lingual household where the language barrier often posed a challenge.

Growing up in a linguistically diverse family poses its unique challenges. Not only did I navigate a language barrier between me and my parents, but they themselves communicated in different languages – my mother, Japanese and my father, Malaysian-Indian. Their initial encounter in London almost thirty years ago must have involved some level of communication, given their enduring marriage. Yet, I have often pondered the extent of their conversations, considering English is a secondary language for them both. 

During my early childhood living with my mother’s family in Japan, I learnt Japanese as my first language, speaking only sporadic bursts of English with my dad until my family moved permanently to the UK. Consequently, I grew up bilingual, with my dad unfortunately missing the opportunity to introduce me to a third language even though he spoke Malay, Tamil, and Telugu. This linguistic limitation solidified my cultural connection with my mother’s side. But visiting my grandparents in Malaysia meant encountering a language barrier with multiple languages spoken by everybody but me, leaving me to rely on English and my very poor Malay. While my father tried to teach me numbers in Tamil when I was twelve, his efforts might have been somewhat misplaced and delayed.

In Malaysia, English is so widely spoken that communication with my dad is smooth apart from him teasing me over my ‘posh’ accent. Yet, my mum has always been adamant on speaking solely in Japanese to me and my younger brother, who understands it better than he speaks it. She remained hesitant to use English, requesting that I pretend as though she doesn’t speak it during parents’ evenings to avoid embarrassment. 

My proficiency in English has surpassed that of my parents, who argue that they are too old to continue learning English and claimed it was no longer my place to correct them. Nevertheless, I feel a deep longing to bridge the cultural gap between both sides of my family, and I wish for my parents to feel more connected to each other. What is it like for my dad living in a house where Japanese dominates conversation? Surely, it must be alienating, much like the discomfort I experience when my father’s family converses with me over the phone.

However, it is possible that this is my family’s aspiration: for me to master English to a degree that they never could. As a child, my dad humorously nicknamed me ‘The Oxford Dictionary’, a title that seemed oddly prophetic. From as young as ten years old I found myself drafting legal and business emails, proofreading messages, and editing documents for him. What good is a child if not for slightly questionable copywriting work? Evidently, my nonexistent knowledge on international business management during my Year 6 SATs mattered little, as long as I was achieving full marks on those demanding primary school spelling tests. Despite my reservations, which persisted beyond my childhood, I can acknowledge that these requests from my dad arose out of necessity and desperation of being a first-generation immigrant, struggling to assimilate into British society.

In the same way that my parents are too old for me to teach them English, I am now too old for them to teach me their mother tongues. While I believe that mastering my parents’ languages could offer a deeper understanding of them as people, I recognise that the responsibility now falls on me to bridge the language barrier.