A heritage language lost can become a culture gained

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
Dec. 22, 2016.   CATHERINE LITTLE

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator and consultant.

If conditions had been even a little less miserable for us in India, my family would probably still live there. We may still speak Hakka, our heritage language, but we would not be the people we are today. Like many immigrant families, we navigated cultural challenges.

Our heritage language suffered while we were busy trying to learn English and make a life in Canada. With such a small community of speakers, the children never developed fluency. My siblings and I understand rudimentary Hakka but don’t speak it. The weekend Chinese classes we attended were taught in dialects incomprehensible to us. English eventually became our home language.

While it’s unfortunate my family wasn’t better able to hold onto our heritage language, it’s great when families can. However, I support the Ontario Education Act’s restriction of the language of instruction in publicly funded schools to English or French.

Individuals, families and governments have to make choices about how to best use the resources – time, energy and money – available to them. My family chose to immigrate to Canada and is confident our lives are better for it. School boards are already struggling to help all students learn the basics in an official language.

What would have been the cost had my family chosen to allocate more resources to speaking Hakka? What would we have paid in lost opportunities, experiences and friends? Would we feel as Canadian? We decided to embrace the life we chose. And live it fully. Cultures are unchanging only in memory. All evolve with the passage of time.

The person one imagines might have been, never was and never will be because life is shaped by choices. But a life without opportunities is one without hope so in order to give their children hope, my parents looked to Canada. And like any opportunities, there were costs.

It’s a hard decision to leave your wife, toddler and newborn in search of a better life. In a pre-Internet world, staying in touch was limited to letters and the very occasional phone call. My father worked long hours while missing his family. My mother cared for two young children without her husband. My brother and I didn’t see our father for a year. Opportunity cost us time together. When we were eventually reunited, my brother didn’t remember the father who had left when he was an infant. The early years can never be recaptured. They were invested in our future.

The long days of work and school at night only intensified with our reunification. My parents eventually had two more children and there was never any doubt that we would all – boys and girls – go to university. Now, we each have careers, homes and families of our own – shaped by the opportunities we sought and the price we paid for them.

None of our spouses come from Hakka backgrounds. As the oldest, it was not an easy conversation when I told our parents of my marriage plans. But life holds many surprises and what some may consider a cultural loss, I embrace as a gain. Even had losing my heritage language been a requirement of life where being born female isn’t considered a liability, prosperity is possible, and loving someone from a different culture simply means you work to create a shared one, I wouldn’t have hesitated.

The grandchildren now number six and although they are exposed to some Hakka, it is unlikely any of them will understand much. It is part of their heritage but it does not define them because our family culture is forever evolving.

So, this Christmas Eve, my multi-generational Canadian family will share an Indo-Chinese meal followed by cheesecake and madeleine cookies beside the brightly decorated tree. We will say grace in English. And be thankful we had the opportunity to pay the cost.

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