Our Languages Stay With Us
Learning Greek was a chore growing up. As a baby, I spoke Greek first, then English, but once school started, much of my native tongue slipped away. My parents hired a tutor to come to our home every Friday in an attempt to continue my Greek education, but it turned out to be much more troublesome than they ever would have thought. Greek was like a secret language nobody knew, and for that reason, I had no interest in learning it. None of my friends spoke Greek, and the small pool of people I could use it with were all over 70 years old. My supposed pantheon of cousins living in Greece was literally an ocean away. The only person I regularly spoke Greek with was my grandma.
My grandma barely speaks any English, so when we were cooking baklava in her tiny kitchen, or she was telling me a story from her childhood, it was all done in Greek. Despite this, we fell into a routine. There were words I used more than others, like the word for help, “voítheia,” which I often asked my grandma if she needed in the kitchen. Much of the vocabulary words I learned during lessons went in one ear and out the other: I never needed to know the word for “cheetah” or “bald eagle” as much as I needed words to describe all the delicious food I wanted my grandma to cook.
Nowadays, I speak in fragments, though I can understand much of what is being said. It’s a tough thing to describe to someone who hasn’t lost their mother tongue; the Greek that people speak to me flows effortlessly into my mind, like a boat going downstream, but once I try to form those sentences on my own, I’m paddling against the current. Needless to say, it’s very frustrating.
Lately, I’ve been making an effort to reconnect with my Greek culture, by listening to music and making traditional food, and it’s through this I’ve realized just how emotional our “lost languages” are. So many of my memories are tied to my first language. According to an article published in Psychology Today, bilingual people tend to have some experiences that are tied to one of their languages, and the speaking of that language can bring back those memories. When I hear Greek, I’m immediately brought back to my childhood: the safeness of my grandma’s kitchen, images in picture-books, and warmly-lit Greek churches. Yet, people like me who have lost their ability to speak their first language may feel frustrated. Not being able to speak the language of our childhood makes us feel like we’ve lost a part of it. However, it’s important to remember that the languages we used to speak are tied to our memories, emotions, and childhood, which can never be taken away. English may be the language of school, work, and the media, but it’s our first language that brings us back to our childhoods and lives forever in our memories.