I was raised bilingually. From a young age, up to my early years of schooling, my parents would tell me how I was confident in speaking English and Syriac.
It’s been a long time since those nostalgic years of primary school, and I have noticed that as I grew older; I was speaking English more and more, and my fluency and understanding of Syriac was diminishing.
As of the present, I almost exclusively speak English because wherever I went, whether it’s to go to work, shopping, hanging out with friends or even visiting family members, everyone spoke English.
Into my adolescence, I began to notice that my parents would speak to me in Syriac, but I would more or less reply in English. I would understand what they’re saying and so would they, although I questioned Why I did speak English at home? Can someone forget their native language? And can that someone be me?
And I realized shortly, that I was uncomfortable to reply to them in Syriac.
I was more comfortable and confident to speak in English, and for curiosity’s sake I forced myself numerous times to reply in Syriac, and I would either stutter, stop mid-sentence and completely forgetting the word or mixing the nominative case of a noun, which my parents would look at me with confusion or laugh at my clumsy mistake.
Yes, I may have sounded stupid to them, and the truth is told, I did feel a little bit embarrassed and discouraged to further speak the language, however, it was during one of those humiliating moments, that I had an important epiphany in which I understood that I did lose the confidence that I had as a child in speaking my mother tongue.
Can someone forget their native language?
I’ve heard similar stories about not being able to speak Syriac at a conversational level from my brothers and cousins, who are all second-generation immigrants like myself.
It couldn’t be a coincidence that no one among the younger generations of my family wasn’t able to speak Syriac fluently, and I was correct, it wasn’t just my family.
The priest from my local church at the end of Sunday mass was encouraging parents to speak Syriac at home and ensure that their children learn the language. That is when I understood that the preservation of the language was a dire issue amongst the Assyrian diaspora.
And I wanted to know why.
Just to give some background, Syriac is a collective term for many Eastern Aramaic dialects that are spoken amongst ethnic Assyrians. Native to the Middle East, and with the large majority of the population being Christian, many have fled due to persecution, including my parents and their families.
With some further research, numbers show that over 70% of the global Assyrian population are in the diaspora. Many in America, Sweden, Canada and other Western countries, and nearly every site I read on the diaspora; there was always mention of the language dying, with UNESCO labeling it as “definitely endangered”. The younger generations aren’t learning it, there is no necessity for it in the West.
“A language is not to survive in the diaspora, outside of its natural habitat after the second, third or fourth generation”— Nineb Lamassu
In short, due to globalization, persecution, and the exodus of the population, the language is bound to die.
Forgetting native language
Reading these sepulchral statistics has made me think pessimistically about the language and its future. Language is fundamental to the cultural and historical identity of a people, and when a language dies the identity of a collective is also threatened.
Whether the language inevitably dies, it has never made sense to me that I shouldn’t try in learning it, what have I got to lose?
I don’t want to hold this sense of pessimism, after all, no one knows what the future holds.
All I can do in the present, is work to the best of my abilities in trying to learn it, even if it contributes to the slightest of hope in preserving the language… and that’s what I have done in the last couple of months.
I have set myself the challenge of trying to only speak it to my parents and grandmother, it was more difficult than I expected. Although, I have learnt a lot so far through my experience in speaking the language.
Speaking an endangered language
The most important lesson that I have learnt, is that it is okay to make mistakes. As aforementioned, I felt embarrassed when I made mistakes, although many polyglots would contend that making mistakes is the best thing I could do when learning a language.
Without making mistakes, I wouldn’t be able to learn, and I understood that very quickly.
I became less hesitant in speaking, more comfortable in my abilities and many of the words that I have forgotten to say as a child, oddly returned to my vocabulary.
Even recently, I have been annoying my parents by constantly asking trivial things on how to say the most random of words such as “pipe”, “truck” and “shovel” in Syriac.
My dad has told me as of recently, my Syriac has gotten much better, and that he feels proud that I have been putting effort into trying to learn and speak the language of my ancestors. Those words inspired me to write this piece, as I felt further encouraged to learn the language.
I see no use in contemplating what the future of my mother tongue holds, whether it dies within this century or the next, it has given me a new perspective on the world, and a greater sense of pride when I speak it.
To lose my language is to lose an integral part of my cultural identity, and that is something I am not willing to lose. I only see a benefit in learning the language, and I remain hopeful that many others also have the desire to preserve this beautiful language.
It is a journey that I have started, and one that I plan to never end.