In my linguistics class this past week we’ve been talking a lot about Language Shift, or how language undergoes changes over time. This normally happens over generations, although sometimes it’s not as slow of a process as one might think. Just look at slang: my parents aren’t saying things like “I domed that burrito in two minutes and now I have a sketch stomachache.” Language shift is also apparent in immigrant families. Let’s say, during a period of political repression or economic hardship in X country (take your pick, there are too many–we’ll go with Mexico), two parents sent their child to the U.S. to seek opportunity, while the parents were forced to stay behind. That child grew up bilingually, retaining her Spanish and also learning English. Then she had kids of her own, but the societal pressures to speak English made it difficult for this woman to effectively pass on any Spanish, so her children grew up English-only. Therefore, these kids cannot communicate with their own grandparents. This happens all the time (sadly).
What I just heard about from a girl at work, and which struck me as SHOCKING, is that she has trouble communicating with her own parents! (And not in the angsty teen I-can’t-even-talk-to-my-own-parents-they-just-don’t-understand-me-way). I’m talking literally, this girl has trouble having a conversation with her mother and father. They immigrated to the U.S. from Korea when this girl was seven. Her parents have lived in Southern California for over ten years and have picked up hardly a word of English, while this girl has lost much of her Korean, due to school and societal factors like English-speaking friends. Conversations in the house with her parents were apparently not enough to keep her Korean up, and so she has lost much of the vocabulary. She told me that she often has to use Google translate to ask them important things, like help on filling out her FAFSA! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Can you imagine???
This is the first instance I’ve ever heard of such immediate language shift. Linguists always like to say that it’s not a good or bad process, it’s just natural. But I listen to this story and imagine this girl struggling to have a simple conversation with her own parents, and I can’t help but feel that she sort of got the short end of the stick on this whole language shift thing.