Personal Essay

The quiet tragedy of forgetting your first language

Andi Sharma reflects on a common, but not commonly discussed, story among immigrant children: a gradual estrangement from your roots.

'Over time, without really noticing, we all lost our mother tongue.'

Andi Sharma's father insisted that she and her siblings speak Hindi. And they did — until they moved to Canada. (Sharma family album)

It's a very odd feeling, the moment you realize you've lost your connection to your heritage. That moment happened for me when I was 11.

I was sitting in temple — the same kind I'd been attending my whole life — but it had been over a year since I last attended. It was all so familiar. The smell of Nag Champa, the sounds of sitar and the tabla playing millennia-old Bhajans, the bright colours of saris and lehengas that reminded me of my Nani. But something had changed. I had changed.

This time, I had no idea what the pundit was saying or what any of the songs meant.

Here in this Canadian temple, far away from my father and my homelands, something that was once so familiar suddenly felt foreign.

I realized in that moment that I no longer spoke Hindi.

Losing my language

Andi (far left), her mother and her siblings moved to Canada without their father. (Andi Sharma)

I had grown up deeply immersed in my father's culture and lineage in Barbados. My mom was an Anglican from an exclusively English-speaking family. She never spoke Hindi. But my father insisted that we should.

For him, the stakes were high. Indians were taken from their homelands and brought to the Caribbean as indentured slaves.

All they brought with them was their language and customs — so for my father, it was very important to keep those fires alive through his children.

Also, as a Hindu priest and a very religious man, he held the language as a sacred connection to our Gods. He tried to instill all of this in us from when we were born.

In Canada, Andi (middle) and her siblings started sounding more and more like their friends and less and less like their parents. (Andi Sharma)

But everything changed in 1997 when I moved to Canada. I was in Grade 6. I remember arriving in the dead of one of Manitoba's coldest winters.

My elder sisters were already attending boarding school in Winnipeg. My mother could not bear being apart from them, so she packed my little sister and I up and we moved to join them.

Unfortunately, for financial reasons, my father was not able to come with us. It's a typical story for immigrant families: split up due to circumstance.

In Canada, I had to learn new customs and navigate a new culture.

Being different didn't make the transition any easier. More than once I was the "smelly curry kid" on the playground, so I tried in earnest to adapt and blend in. I slowly started sounding and looking more like my friends and less like my parents.

Over time, without really noticing, we all lost our mother tongue.

Losing my father

Tragedy struck when I was 18 years old and we lost my father.

He got sick years after we had moved. It was an intense loss on its own, especially at such a young age.

It didn't strike me until a year or two later that his death also meant our connection to Hindi had died with him.

Despite his best efforts, he would be the last of his lineage to carry the sacred language of our Gods, the last to speak our mother tongue and the last to connect us to our homelands.

The depth of that tragedy stung me for years to come and is still one of the biggest regrets in my life.

How could I have sacrificed something so important to him and replaced it with something so foreign?

If I'd known that I wasn't alone in this struggle ... it might have been different for me.

Every time I meet an Indian person, and they immediately start speaking to me in Hindi, I am ashamed.

Every time I watch old family videos of the Gayatri ceremonies that marked my transition to adulthood but no longer understand a word, I am deeply saddened.

Worst of all, every time I sit at my father's altar — the last remnants of his devotion — I am painfully reminded of how I have failed his memory.

This tension remained unresolved in me for over a decade.

Reclaiming what's lost

It took me a long time to realize that my story is common among immigrant children.

Andi and younger relatives are now studying Hindi together. (Andi Sharma)

We walk around holding two worlds within us and the war that rages inside of us is fought quietly and alone.

We spend our days at school hiding our differences, but we spend our nights steeped in our home culture and heritage.

We are told to maintain tradition but the world we now live in demands of us assimilation and expects of us compliance.

We spend our lives trying to resolve this tension within ourselves and we have little to help guide us, as our experience is markedly different than that of our parents — they who have had decades with their cultures where we, as immigrant children, only have a handful of years before we are brought to new lands.

If I had known that I was not alone in this struggle, that others have shared my experience of losing my mother tongue, it might have been different for me.

With honesty and understanding, we can walk in two worlds and hold them both within us. 

So I hope that my story can help illuminate another child's journey or give insight to mothers and fathers who are struggling with losing their children to a foreign identity.

If we talk about our struggles, I believe we can overcome them.

With honesty and understanding, we can walk in two worlds and hold them both within us. After all, there is such beauty and strength in our diversity.

I have finally found solace and peace around this particular tragedy in my life as my sisters and I have started on the long hard road to reclaiming our language.

We will finally be able to celebrate the heritage that he gifted us in the only way appropriate — we will re-learn to speak Hindi and one day honour his memory in his mother tongue.  

I simply cannot wait for that day.

About the Author

Andi Sharma

Andi Sharma is a senior policy analyst for the government of Manitoba's Northern Healthy Foods Initiative. She holds a masters degree in public administration, an undergraduate in commerce.

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