Why it is never to late to learn about your heritage language and culture…

I'm sorry Tokyo – by Brooke Alexx

When I came across the video by Brooke Alexx the other day, I had to write about it.

It is a very touching song, but also sad, as she thinks that she missed the chance to learn Japanese and about one of her heritage cultures. The feeling she shares in this song is what every parent of a multicultural child or a child that grows up abroad, cross-culturally, should know about. No matter if a TCK, CCK, immigrant, refugee: we all share the same worry and need. We worry that we stand out, we want to fit in, be like our peers.
We don't want to be the one who brings "smelly/different" lunchboxes to school, who dresses in a different way, whose parents have an accent or look different than the other parents.
I remember thinking exactly the same about my mother, my parents: that they sounded different, they had an accent, they dressed slightly different from local parents. I had the chance to learn about my heritage language and culture, but was I proud of it? Not really. This always depends from how our heritage culture is valued in the place we grow up in. As a German – looking very German... – growing up in Italy in the 70-80ies, I felt the difference. It wasn't something to be proud of for me, as most Germans would be "loud", "disrespectful" (think about the way many German tourists behave when abroad) etc. I didn't want to be associated with them. I stood out in pictures we took when I was a child. I was the only "biondina con gli occhi chiari". So, I fully understand Brooke. 

In her song, Brooke apologizes to Tokyo, which stands for her heritage country, culture and language. She describes her need to distance herself when she was 13, but now she regrets it:

 

Wish that I could go back now andBe okay outside the crowd, yeahLove myself and mean itBrave enough to lean inWish I hadn't kept my distanceGrew up with some pieces missingIs it too late to call you home?I'm sorry, Tokyo

 

I don't think it is ever too late to call home the place, culture and language that we carry with us. Even if hidden or not yet acknowledged! It is already part of us. The same way others don't have a say whether we feel that we belong or not, WE choose the places and groups we call home and we want to belong to.

Learning Japanese, or any other later, is always possible. It might take a while, but we can learn it much more consciously and the experience can be quite intense, even cathartic, liberating. It can feel like freeing ourselves from chains that the society put on us willing or unwillingly.

"Bi-ethnic children need to be taught from a young age about their double heritage and identity, that both are assets, and parents bear this responsibility, isn't it?" (Eliane L. in my fb group Multilingual Families)

I replied: "Yes, we do. But I also know that not every parent is "ready" to do so, for various reasons: they maybe had negative experiences, memories they don't want to revive whilst speaking the language or holding on to some traditions etc.." I really don't want parents to ever feel guilty if they didn't transmit their language yet. They can have valuable reasons for it. Sometimes we need to wait until we are ready...

I was not sure if I wanted to transmit my German culture and language to my children, and the Italian one. I managed to do both, whilst also embracing the other cultures we are in touch with on a daily basis (Dutch and English). 
Even if we associate difficult memories with our culture and language, as parents we have the chance to re-write the narrative even after trauma*. With our children we can start afresh and transmit a chosen view on our heritage culture. I decided to do so. I made the effort to focus on the positive sides of German culture and language, because I don't want my children to carry on a burden that is not theirs.

Brooke doesn't mention her parents, but she mentions her grandma:

My grandma gave me books to readBut I didn't think that'd be cool back at 13Embarrassed of the way she talkedI thought that I was better offTryna sound like all the girls on my TV

There are many lessons we can learn from Brooke's song:
1) keep on trying to transmit your culture and language, even if the child is resistant,
2) as a child, keep on asking about your heritage culture and language; be curious about it and not afraid for how it is different from what surrounds you!
3) that it is never too late to learn our heritage language and culture (or any other for that matter)

 

On Linkedin, Laura Wright, an Educator and Entrepreneur, wrote:

"What does your school do to foster an awareness of and respect for heritage languages?

And then, how do you make it apart of the school culture?
This is such a beautiful yet heartbreaking song about a heritage language pushed aside.
This makes me wonder:
- Would a school culture of plurilingualism and intercultural awareness /respect have changed this girls experience?
- Would her grandmothers accent be seen as a sign of a fascinating life rather than an embarrassment in such a school?
- Would a culture of multilingual pedagogies including translanguaging have provoked this girl to reconsider her heritage language earlier? Perhaps even taken pride in it?"

I replied: "Heritage language loss is very real. Especially from the second generation onwards, when one keeps in living outside of the culture of origin/heritage. I'm first generation and already wasn't very keen on learning my parents language, and my children are second generation growing up abroad.
Although I /we made and make the effort to keep their heritage cultures part of their daily life, I know it will fade. This is very natural: when we live abroad, we add facets of every culture and language we get in touch with and make it our very personal one. We become a unique tapestry of cultures and languages."

The reason I always encourage parents to maintain their languages and cultures, at least to some extent, and to offer their children the opportunity to explore them is exactly what is expressed in this song. 
We can use this song to make our children reflect on their multi-faceted identity, the beauty of the many colors and shapes. "Tokyo" and "Japanese" in this song can be replaced by any other minoritized language.
Please share this with other multilingual and multicultural families, teachers, educators, and whoever might need to understand that our children, we are "not only...but also..." and have the right to be very proud of it!

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The lyrics of the song by Brooke Alexx:

I could've learned JapaneseMy grandma gave me books to readBut I didn't think that'd be cool back at 13Embarrassed of the way she talkedI thought that I was better offTryna sound like all the girls on my TV
Paid the price to fit right inClosed my mind to chase the trendsMade the joke before someone else did
Wish that I could go back now andBe okay outside the crowd, yeahLove myself and mean itBrave enough to lean inWish I hadn't kept my distanceGrew up with some pieces missingIs it too late to call you home?I'm sorry, Tokyo
Tokyo
I thought guys wouldn't like me backWhen I saw an ex in photographsAnd she looked like everything I know I can't be
And I let myself get so blinded by comparisonsI watered down my differencesMade the joke before someone else did
Wish that I could go back now andBe okay outside the crowd, yeahLove myself and mean itBrave enough to lean inWish I hadn't kept my distanceGrew up with some pieces missingIs it too late to call you home?
I wasn't ready thenI hope you're listeningI'm sorry, I'm sorryNo, I'm not innocentI should've let you inI'm sorry, I'm sorry
Wish that I could go back now andBe okay outside the crowd, yeahLove myself and mean itBrave enough to lean inWish I hadn't kept my distanceGrew up with some pieces missingIs it too late to call you home?I'm sorry, Tokyo

Tokyo

I invite you to have a look at the website from Shelly Robinson, "Raising Yourself".

 

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  1. Pingback: Bridging the Language Divide in Multilingual Families - Ute's International Lounge & Academy

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