Forgetting Cantonese.

Jenny Liao has a moving New Yorker piece (archived) about losing a language:

No one prepared me for the heartbreak of losing my first language. It doesn’t feel like the sudden, sharp pain of losing someone you love, but rather a dull ache that builds slowly until it becomes a part of you. My first language, Cantonese, is the only one I share with my parents, and, as it slips from my memory, I also lose my ability to communicate with them. When I tell people this, their eyes tend to grow wide with disbelief, as if it’s so absurd that I must be joking. “They can’t speak English?” they ask. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer. The truth is, I rely on translation apps and online dictionaries for most of our conversations.

It’s strange when I hear myself say that I have trouble talking to my parents, because I still don’t quite believe it myself. We speak on the phone once a week and the script is the same: “Have you eaten yet?” my father asks in Cantonese. Long pause. “No, not yet. You?” I reply. “Why not? It’s so late,” my mother cuts in. Long pause. “Remember to drink more water and wear a mask outside,” she continues. “O.K. You too.” Longest pause. “We’ll stop bothering you, then.” The conversation is shallow but familiar. Deviating from it puts us (or, if I’m being honest, just me) at risk of discomfort, which I try to avoid at all costs. […]

My parents taught me my first words: naai, when I was hungry for milk, and gai, when I was hungry for chicken. I was born in New York City and spent most of my childhood, in Brooklyn, speaking Cantonese, since it was (and still is) the only language that my parents understand. In the nineteen-eighties, they immigrated to the U.S. from Guangdong, a province in southern China. The jobs they found in hot kitchens and cramped garment factories came with long hours, leaving them no time to learn English. As a result, my parents relied heavily on the Chinese community in New York to survive. I looked forward to running errands with my mother in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where I heard Cantonese spoken all around me in grocery stores, doctors’ offices, and hair salons. On special occasions, we would yum cha with my mother’s friends and eat my favorite dim-sum dishes like cheung fun and pai gwut while they praised my voracious appetite. At home, we watched “Journey to the West,” a popular Hong Kong television series that aired on TVB, and listened to catchy Cantopop songs by Jacky Cheung on repeat. Before I started school, my only friends were the children of other Cantonese-speaking immigrants, with whom I bonded over our shared love of White Rabbit candies and fruit-jelly cups. Cantonese surrounded every aspect of my life; it was all I knew. […]

My fluency eroded so gradually through the years that there isn’t a definitive moment when my vocabulary became less extensive, my grammar less polished. It didn’t occur to me that my Cantonese was regressing well beyond the tip of my tongue until it was too late. First, my directions were off. I started saying jau, which means “right,” when I meant to say zo, which means “left.” This caused my dad to make wrong turns when I navigated in his car. Then, the names of colors started to escape me. “I like your green dress,” I said to my mom in Cantonese once. “This is blue, silly!” she laughed. And a couple of years ago, I tried replicating my grandma’s steamed-egg recipe but asked my dad how she used to pan-fry them. “You mean ‘steam,’ right?” He intrinsically knew how to decipher my broken Cantonese. Eventually, I struggled to construct sentences altogether, often mispronouncing words or failing completely to recall them.

She ultimately “made it a goal to relearn Cantonese, and, ultimately, rebuild the relationship with my parents.” You can see more snippets at the Log, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.


  1. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer.

    Me neither. And my only language [English] is their only language.

    The conversation is shallow but familiar.

    Yes. Frankly this has a lot more to do with emigrating from your homeland than anything to do with language.

    (My aunt, who emigrated from London to Norway, and did keep up her English, experienced the same.)

  2. Good points.

  3. Coming up to almost two years, the occasional calls I have with my parents have been virtually the only conversations I’ve had in Korean, my mother tongue. I used to go back to Korea regularly, but have been grounded since the start of the pandemic, and I barely know any Koreans where I currently live. It’s becoming a genuine concern that I will lose my fluency in my mother tongue due to the lack of practice.

    It won’t go as far as losing the language as the author of the piece did. I still consume a lot of Korean-language media and write a lot in Korean. But it’s the speaking that is not getting much practice. In the past when I went back to Korea after I’d gone for long periods without speaking Korean, for the first day or so, I would find myself hesitating a bit more when I spoke as I struggled to find the right words.

    It’s a similar story with French, though at least I occasionally get to practice it here. But there is a bit of incredulity involved in seeing your grasp on your native language slip. I’m looking forward to being able to travel again not least so I can brush up on these languages.

  4. Athelstan John Cornish-Bowden says

    I haven’t lived in my native country for nearly 35 years. Before Covid-19 I used to go back from time to time, but each time I felt a bit more of a foreigner.

  5. My wife speaks on the phone to her parents in a macaronic mix of Taiwanese and English, often switching languages mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence. (There may be a little Mandarin in the mix as well, but not much.) Since the most likely reason for a switch is a gap in her heritage-speaker Taiwanese lexicon, it is quite advantageous that her parents have a reasonable degree of ESL fluency – if they had no English it would probably be much harder for them to have wide-ranging non-stilted conversations.* I don’t know how much the gaps in her Taiwanese lexicon are the result of forgetting lexemes she knew in childhood versus having never learned relevant lexemes for topics that now come up in adult conversation but that didn’t tend to come up in the intra-family conversations she had as a child.

    *I think sometimes she’ll just stick the English word into the middle of an otherwise Taiwanese sentence, other times she’ll shift at the problem word and then stay in English for the rest of the sentence and maybe the rest of the topic before shifting back.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I think sometimes she’ll just stick the English word into the middle of an otherwise Taiwanese sentence

    When my daughter was about 5 she used to do that, though in her case she would stick a French word into the middle of an English. It happened when she didn’t know the English word for what she wanted to say. It was always obvious from the virtual quotation marks (little pauses before and after the inserted word) that she knew perfectly well that it wasn’t an English word.

  7. My fluency in Hebrew depends a lot on the fluency of the person I’m talking with.

  8. Frankly this has a lot more to do with emigrating from your homeland than anything to do with language.

    I disagree. I identified with a number of things in this piece even though I’ve kept my first language.

    One thing that struck me though is that she didn’t just lose her Cantonese. When she was a teenager she kind of rejected it ( “With nowhere to channel my fury, I spoke English to my parents, knowing that they couldn’t understand me. I was cruel; I called them hurtful names and belittled their intelligence. I used English, a language they admired, against them.“)

    I think translation apps are wonderful. I use Google translate all the time. If I was her, though, I think I’d bite the bullet and study Cantonese from the very beginning using a course or a textbook.

    As someone once said, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and I think the children of immigrants are made vulnerable by this and end up feeling insecure. I think it’s worth the price of embarrassment over relearning your own language in order to lose that insecurity and the worse embarrassment that comes with it.

  9. As someone once said, “You don’t know what you don’t know”

    Very true, and it holds also for The Right Way to Learn a Language.

  10. A very moving article!

    I’m wondering how much the writer’s upward class journey contributed to the distance between her and her parents. Her story reminds me of other stories from people who made a class journey through education. I like how the article ends on a positive note. I’m reminded of a rather depressing poem, but the poem ends with the loneliness of the father.

    Movies and other pop culture is a great way to learn a language. Not only do you learn the language, you also learn shared references and shared culture. A good activitity to do together at a distance, too.

  11. in her case she would stick a French word into the middle of an English

    “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing” (it saves time)

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