The feeling of shame that comes with the territory of being a monolingual second-generation immigrant is probably a familiar one to those with parents who, by comparison, can flit between three different languages in just one conversation. It’s one I’ve found increasingly tricky to navigate as I’ve grown older, and, as someone who also happens to be mixed race, it has often been accompanied by a sense of detachment from my mother’s culture.
My mother was born in Tanzania, in East Africa. She grew up speaking in Swahili but, being mixed-race herself, she also grew up speaking Guajarati, Urdu, some Hindi, and some Punjabi. She seems to navigate her cultural heritage with a fluidity that never ceases to amaze me, and which I’m frequently envious of. I’ve grown up in largely white, Western environments and, being white-passing, the ease with which I fit into this demography can at times feel like an act of rejection of my heritage and culture. Although I lived in Nairobi in Kenya for a year as a child, and spent some important childhood years there, I only picked up a limited amount of Kiswahili.
After moving back to the UK, the opportunities to learn the language shrank. I know that it can’t have been easy for my mother to raise a child as bilingual when I was surrounded by English-speakers, went to English-speaking schools and befriended English-speaking schoolmates. Knowing and hearing about my resistance to learning my mother’s language as a young girl is painful, and I’ve been desperate to change this for a long time. The extent of my previous efforts have been a Duolingo streak here or there. I also once approached a company that taught Kiswahili to ask for a quote but ran a mile the other way when presented with the asking price for a series of lessons (which was a lot).
But why had I never considered that the best possible teacher has only ever been a phone-call away? In some ways, the lockdown wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic has given some of us unprecedented amounts of time to pursue other interests. Whether it’s getting through the to-be-read pile, or drawing and painting, or testing out elaborate new recipes – so many of us, though it’s worth adding that we are a fortunate few, are finally getting the time and space to finally do that thing we’d been trying to get around to for so long now. And now I have time to FaceTime my mum on a weekly basis and learn Kiswahili. I’m fortunate to have a teacher who, as a self-employed artist, has time to put aside for me, but also one who has the patience to answer my questions and teach at my pace.
Seeing my mother’s face light up with glee whenever I get my pronunciations right is absolute joy. And it’s some of the small things I look forward to in the long run, too. I want to be able to gossip about people with my mum without them being able to understand what we’re saying. It’s early days, but I feel that this time it’s going to be more than a week-long streak and, a day later, a guilt-tripping message from that persistent green owl. And the sense of closeness I feel to her is unbeatable – Duolingo could never.
Yasmin Hackett is a Publishing Masters student based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is passionate about making space for diverse voices in the creative industries. She comes from a mixed background, with East African, Indian and English heritage, and spent her childhood years in Birmingham and Sheffield in the UK, and in Nairobi in Kenya. She can’t wait to go out dancing again.