The importance of Language

Iman Hassen, Sidwell '18 and Alexandra Zhang, Sidwell '18

Iman Hassen ‘18 and Alexandra Zhang ‘18 explain their relationships with their family’s respective native languages: Amharic and Chinese. The two juniors illuminate why they perceive language to be so closely tied to their cultures. (Published: 2017)

My Ethiopian heritage has always been important part of my life, especially since both my parents are native Ethiopians. In the early 1990s, when my parents moved to America, they felt the need to assimilate to Western culture. Amongst all the adaptations they needed to make, language seemed to be the most urgent, but because of the language barrier, there was a limited number of people with whom they could interact. My dad’s brother, who immigrated to America a couple years before, was one of the very few people my parents knew that spoke both proficient English and Amharic. My parents heavily relied on my uncle’s English even for the most mundane actions such as
shopping or ordering food. But little by little, they learned English themselves, and they quickly realized that the force which once restricted or inhibited their interactions now enhanced them. Initially, my parents perceived English to be a barrier because they didn’t know it, but once they were able to explore and familiarize themselves with the language, they began to take advantage of its benefits. Suddenly, they were able to respond to their neighbors’
friendly greetings, and they could even navigate through downtown on their own!

I also fell victim to a language barrier during my first visit to Ethiopia in 2007. By 2007, my parents had both vastly improved their English, so I didn’t feel the need to learn Amharic. Occasionally, my parents did speak to me in Amharic, but although I would be able to pick up a few words, I always responded


in English. However, the same wasn’t true in Ethiopia, and I felt like a complete stranger within my own family. My aunts, uncles, and cousins made attempts at conversation with the little English they
knew, but even then, I couldn’t hold a conversation for more than a couple of minutes without the aid of my mom. So, for a whole summer, my mom served as a translator between me and the rest of my family.

As my brothers and I became more interested in learning Amharic, my parents have helped teach us Amharic, so we can become fluent in a language that deeply links us to our ancestry and serves as a reflection of our culture. Living in America, it is easy for me to get caught up in Western culture and forget my roots. Although my connection to Ethiopia may not be physical, speaking Amharic keeps me attached to my culture and family back home.

When I came back to DC, my dad would jokingly ask if I was fluent in Amharic yet, hinting that three months in Ethiopia should have done the trick. It was around then that most of my conversations with my parents started with “how do you say...?” as I began speaking to them more and more using my broken Amharic. I never formally studied the language, but through more frequent conversations with my parents and family back home, I started to speak it more naturally. This was exciting to both my parents -- with their shaky English and my broken Amharic, we comfortably met halfway. Previously, the burden to speak a second language was all put on my parents, and when I started speaking Amharic, I lightened this load. Instead of placing the full weight on either of us, we shared the burden of speaking
in a second language, which was more comfortable for all of us.

To me, language is not merely a mode of connection, but also a means of preservation. When my parents immigrated here, they couldn’t bring their land or their food on the plane, but they could bring their language. My parents, along with millions of other Ethiopian immigrants, introduced Amharic to America, and as a first generation American, it’s my job to preserve it and along with it, my Ethiopian identity.

According to my parents, the decision to have me learn and speak Chinese as a first language was an obvious one to make. As a couple who had just immigrated to the United States only three years before to pursue their graduate degrees, they were still trying to navigate the dramatically

different Western society with very limited means. So to help my parents—who were both finishing doctorate degrees and starting new jobs—my grandparents—who had flown from China to help take care of their new grandchild—became a large part of my upbringing. Because my grandparents only spoke Chinese, my parents wanted me to learn it so I could communicate with them and share their love of Chinese culture. Even though it was a seemingly easy decision to make at the time, my parent’s desire for me to learn their native language is a choice for which I will always be grateful.

The pressure on many immigrant families to assimilate can be overwhelming, and some families feel pressure to banish their native language and culture from their household. However, instead of abandoning their culture and “white-washing” themselves in the American one, my parents leaned on it as a reminder of the home they had left . They considered it a vital part of their immigrant identity in the new, daunting Western world. Though they also encouraged my brother and I to watch American cartoons and eat American food, they viewed the association of Chinese culture, and especially the language, as a connection to the home they had left, which is a sentiment I also share.

Growing up, my brother Michael and I woke up every Saturday morning to loud bursts of laughter and rapid conversation in my parents’ native Chengdu dialect. Excited, we would run downstairs to see my parents either calling or video chatting with my aunt, uncle, grandparents, or any other member of my

extended family. Since none of my other family members understood English, I would always join — well, in retrospect, probably interrupt — the conversation in Chinese and tell them all the exciting details my six-year-old self had experienced that week. I would show them drawings I had created and share the journal entries I had written in Chinese about my day. Through events such as these, I have always associated the Chinese language as a bridge between the American culture I was experiencing at school and the Chinese one I was experiencing at home.

My parents also wanted for me to truly experience their culture, and learning Chinese was a vital step. My family has always observed Chinese holidays, many of which are based on famous Chinese myths. For example, we celebrate 端午节, or the Dragon Boat Festival, on the fi th day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This celebration honors a famous Chinese poet who committed suicide by drowning in the Miluo River instead of surrendering after his country was taken over during the Warring States Period. To honor his memory, his country’s people threw 粽子, or sticky rice dumplings wrapped in a leaf, into the same river in hopes that the fish living there would eat the rice dumplings instead of
his body. After reading such stories in Chinese at Chinese school, I was able to appreciate the culture infinitely more, and not just because of the story. In my opinion, the structure of the Chinese
language and the use of various idioms are what truly give character to the myth and what bring it to life.

More recently, when I studied idioms at Chinese school, I was able to get a deeper understanding of Chinese culture just by deconstructing various idioms and discussing how they reflected values many Chinese people have, such as respecting elders, persistence, and achieving success. When these idioms and stories are translated to English, the story loses that tone and, ultimately, its effect because some elements are nearly impossible to translate. By knowing and constantly expanding my knowledge of the Chinese language, I am able to truly appreciate the culture I come from and the many stories and lessons that would otherwise literally be lost in translation.

I cannot imagine my life if my parents had decided to disregard their language and culture and commit themselves to fully assimilating into American culture. If my parents had chosen not to speak Chinese with me, I would have had virtually no way of communicating with relatives through Skype or whenever I
visited my family in China. I also doubt that I would even associate myself at all with China beyond merely tracing my ancestry there. However, thanks to my parents’ choice to let me learn their native
language, I am able to appreciate just how important language truly is in tying me to my roots, serving as a sense of belonging to two great cultures, and shaping my identity.