Tell me about your immigrant parents' language problems

I’m trying to write a piece about a kid whose immigrant parents either never learned their new country’s language or learned it poorly, and about the assimilated child’s reaction. I’d love to hear some personal experiences. Stories and anecdotes are great; even better would be your emotional reaction. Was it a non-issue? Were you embarrassed? How did you react to their accent?

This wasn’t me, it was my grandfather and one of my aunts. Grandpa Bodoni spoke broken English, very broken. When he had a toothache, he took my Aunt Vincenza (Vinnie) (yes, I have an AUNT Vinnie, but Cousin Vinnie is a figment of my imagination) to the dentist, to tell the dentist about his problems. Well, Aunt Vinnie, through accident or design, didn’t identify the right tooth to the dentist, so the wrong tooth got pulled. Grandpa Bodoni was less than happy about this.

My grandparents were from Quebec and their native language was French. But they did grow up knowing English (although they spoke it with an accent). While my father and his siblings were all born in New York, the family grew up speaking French in their home. My father didn’t really use English until he started going to school.

My mother has told me that when she first knew my father and visited his family everyone was speaking French. It was apparently non-French speakers like my mother marrying into the family that finally got them to start speaking English in their home.

When my family would visit Germany, my dad used to take my older sister with him to go shopping so she could translate. This started when she was about 4.

As a nurse, I have had non-English speaking patients for whom a child in the family would translate my questions and patient’s answers, some as young as 6 or 7.

I don’t know if this counts, but my parents were immigrants from another English speaking country. Of course, they could speak English just fine, but they had strong accents and used weird terms for some things, so often they would have some trouble communicating. I grew up in a place with very few immigrants of any kind, so I felt that they really stood out.

I was very embarrassed about my parents accents for a long time. In grade school I was teased for using the words my parents used around the house, which turned out to be strange and foreign to the other kids at school. By the time I was 11 or 12 I dreaded my friends calling my house because I didn’t want my parents to answer. My dad in particular, despite the fact that he was speaking English, proved to be near-incomprehensible to many of my friends. Eventually I got over it, and by 15 or 16 I just realized that it didn’t really matter.

I know I’m making it sound like I hated my parents being immigrants, but that wasn’t the case at all. I was embarrassed when people didn’t understand them, but in many ways I also loved that our family was sort of different and exotic. In a school where most kids hadn’t even left the province, I was taking regular overseas trips and coming back with cool toys and clothes that couldn’t be bought locally, which was pretty sweet.

So it was a mixed bag emotionally. I imagine it would have been very different if I had grown up somewhere where immigrants (of any sort) were more common.

My parents came from Hungary when they were in their twenties. When I was a kid I somehow never noticed that they spoke differently than other people. But when I went away to college, when I came home on breaks I suddenly noticed what thick accents they had, and still have.

My husband is a native speaker of German and moved to the U.S. when he was 31. His English is excellent, but he has a strong accent. But the funny thing is, the kids can’t hear it. When someone mentions his accent, they are a little confused. They KNOW he has an accent, but they don’t HEAR he has an accent. That’s just the way Papa talks.

That’s sort of the way I was with my parents. Have his kids ever lived away from home? If not, then if they do go away they may notice the accent much more upon returning home. That’s what happened to me.

I’ve lived all my life in New York and I have three nieces who’ve lived all their life in Texas. When they visit me in New York, I notice their Texan accent. But when I visit them in Texas, I don’t notice it. Apparently my brain just edits it out as part of the background.

My mother was from Amsterdam; she had studied English in school, married an American, and had lived in the US for over 15 years before I was old enough to notice the way she talked. Everyone loved her accent, as she spoke English perfectly, but with a characteristic lilt that I can’t describe – Dutch people I’ve met more recently don’t sound the same. She also had a few Dutch expressions that became permanent parts of the family lexicon; at bedtime she’d say something that sounds like it should be spelled “go slaapjestoon” (but that’s not it), and my sister is forever Susie (not her name at all) because Mom told my eldest brother she was his “zusje.”

Apparently, when Mom was newer to our shores, her accent was a bit stronger, and her word choice was not so perfect, and there are family jokes about that that I don’t quite get – a chocolate malt is a “chocolate moat,” because of something Mom said in the '50s.

A Colombian friend was from the highlands, where the accent is from the same group as the Castilian one. His father was from Seville, where it’s definitely not; when he was 15, he spent the summer at his grandmother’s, where “everybody talked like Dad and my cousins made fun for me for ‘speaking like the telly’”. He was used to having to interpret between his dad and the neighbors; during that visit, he was trying to have conversations with relatives who talked even weirder than his dad (the accent was the same, but the vocabularies had diverged).

My father’s cousin lives in the US (last I heard she was still in Miami, where I met her); she obtained the American nationality without being able to have a conversation in English, by memorizing the answers to the test. I know her children find her inability to move outside Hispanic areas very frustrating.

My parents immigrated to Israel together from the U.S. in 1971, right after they got out of college. They both learned the basics of the language fairly quickly, but after that, their paths diverged. My dad was always more deeply involved in the Hebrew-speaking world, first as a bank clerk and then as a lawyer, so while his accent is still fairly strong, he speaks Hebrew almost as well as a native. My mom, OTOH, remained in a English-speaking bubble - first as an ESL teacher in a high school, then in ESL textbook publishing, and finally in fundraising. As a result, while fluent, she’s never felt that confident in Hebrew, and will speak English whenever possible - including with those native Israelis who possess good English skills, like my wife.

That would be ‘slaapjes doen’ - to do little sleeps, ie the way an adult would say ‘go to sleep’ to a small child. Zusje, of course, means little sister. The chocolate malt thing seems more like a pronunciation thing, there’s no explanation of that joke that is based on Dutch meaning as far as I can tell (IOW I don’t get the joke either).

I’ve never had that problem. My parents and even my grandparents speak English pretty well. Sometimes my grandparents have a hard time saying certain words because of the fact that English doesn’t have standard pronounciations (you know, the pronounciation of words like “nation” and “rough”), but they can understand just about anyone speaking English.

I generally speak English at home, but sometimes I do speak Arabic with my parents. I don’t like speaking it around people who aren’t Arab, though, because some people seem to think Arabic is an ugly language.

My parents did the same, although I always knew they had accents. My Mom especially has a heavy accent. It did not and does not embarrass me, although they had a few language quirks that were amusing. Till the end of his life my father would say that an airplane takes off from a “runaway”. And to this day if someone is exasperating my mom she’ll say, “He drives me up to the wall.”

Once when I was young we were traveling in Europe and my mom got into a conversation with a man whose English was so heavily accented I could scarcely understand him. I asked, “How could you tell what he was saying?” She said, “I used to sound like that, too.”

That’s interesting. I have a close friend from Toronto who married a French Canadian, learned French as an adult and spoke French at home. Their son told me one day that his father had no accent speaking French. My wife (who speaks French well) says the son is totally wrong.

My father, born in South Philadelphia spoke only Yiddish till he went to school. All the kids in the neighborhood spoke it too. But I really do believe that the only accent he had was a strong South Philly accent. His parents only ever spoke a very broken English and my mother (whose parents emigrated as a child and a 13 year old) had to learn Yiddish to speak to her in-laws. I know from one story that my father was very embarrassed by his parents.

Thanks to everyone who’s shared so far - very interesting, and very helpful. :slight_smile:

My mom left Germany at age 18 and came to the USA, her english was sufficient for all everyday interactions and was only an issue with specialized terminology like medical or legal terms. Funny thing is little bits of German seeped into conversation and it was natural, like her grand kids calling her oma. But when others would hear it they would react very strongly, oma wtf is that? It was very jarring.

Not linked to the specific question, but something I’ve observed very often and which I think can make for an interesting scene:

parent talking in the old language, child between the age of 3 and “has children in college” replying in the new language. The whole conversation isn’t so much bilingual as co-lingual.

I’ve seen this with my in-laws. My wife is one of five siblings spaced over 16 years. Her parents are from China. They always talk to their kids in Chinese. The kids’ Chinese gets progressively worse as you get younger. The oldest child speaks perfectly. My wife is in the middle. She speaks ok but inserts a lot of English words. The youngest child responds almost entirely in English.