Barriers in the Family
The Naskhulyans found it almost too easy to speak Armenian and Russian around Los Angeles, and struggled to communicate with their daughter.
A fun-loving, happy child, she was also a bit of a mystery to the family. At two years, she was struggling to express herself through language. She knew a handful of words, all of them in English: "mama," "dada," and, her favorite, "toy."
When they landed in LAX in June 2000 in search of a better life, the Naskhulyans were a family of three: Greg, Nora, and 10-year-old Jack. They chose L.A. because they knew it was a place that accommodated their culture but still allowed immigrants to become Americans. Within months Jack embraced the English language and California as his own. By the end of the first year, Greg and Nora began taking night classes in English in a struggle to keep up.
In some ways, living in L.A. made it hard to learn English. They lived in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley, and spent a lot of their time visiting friends and relatives in Glendale, where they could patronize Armenian food markets on Colorado Boulevard and were served by Armenian waiters at cozy restaurants on Glendale Avenue. They found Armenian-owned pastry shops and cafes and an Armenian employee at almost every business: car washes, boutiques, and hardware stores. They also frequented West Hollywood, where they could get by easily with their fluent knowledge of Russian. Virtually anywhere the Naskhulyans found themselves, they could use their native languages to get by, and did not use English much outside of their classes, and never at home.
More than two years after the Naskhulyans' arrival, their daughter Vera was born, bringing joy and tension into the household. "She was so energetic and rambunctious," says Jack. "Taking care of her became everyone's full-time job."
Language use at home among immigrant families is an entire area of scholarly research. Janet Oh, a psychologist and professor at California State University, Nothridge, notes that small children of immigrants typically start out speaking their parents' language at home and, after they begin school, gradually switch to English, which generally becomes dominant.
But Vera was not typical. A fun-loving, happy child, she was also a bit of a mystery to the family. At two years, she was struggling to express herself through language. She knew a handful of words, all of them in English: "mama," "dada," and, her favorite, "toy." She never spoke a word in Armenian or Russian in spite of hearing her parents speak only those languages.
UCLA Linguistics Professor Nina Hyams, who works on childhood language acquisition, points out that it is normal for children exposed to multiple languages to take longer to begin speaking.
Fluent in Disney
Jack was the one who spoke fluent English, and was usually Vera's baby-sitter while his parents worked. The two would watch American movies and cartoons all day long, as Vera's vocabulary expanded to include "cool," "baby," "cute," and "princess." She understood her parents but always answered in English.
In an e-mail Hyams writes, "She may have been exposed so much more to English (her brother) than to Armenian that English became her dominant language, and she is not able to express herself in Armenian, but can understand. This is not uncommon with children of immigrants, especially when there are older siblings who speak English."
Nora and Greg struggled to understand their daughter. Once, on a car ride home from the beach in Santa Monica, Vera talked incessantly. "She was chattering in English and I couldn't make out what she was saying. I thought she was just playing make-believe, or talking to herself," explains Nora in Armenian. "Finally, Jack realized she was saying, 'I have sand in my eyes.' I was horrified."
Nora remembers another occasion when Vera came to her with a distraught look on her little face. "She kept saying 'I'm starving, I'm starving,' remembers Nora. "And I had no idea what she meant. Jack finally translated for me, and now I definitely know what 'starving' means."
As Vera continued to communicate in English, the parents grew concerned about what they saw as their little girl's resistance to their home language.
From a psychologist's perspective, Oh has done extensive research in heritage language development, maintenance, and loss, and she particularly notes the difficulties of maintaining the heritage language in the home. She says that in the United States, a heritage language is usually lost by the third generation.
When children of immigrants to America learn their home languages fluently, they have more challenges ahead. "When you have a society that is pushing English-only at all levels, then [language loss] is inevitable," says Oh.
Researchers and educators justifiably talk about the need to encourage the retention of heritage languages, and the effects of pressures to abandon their home language once children start going to school. Understanding these issues is essential to nurturing heritage language development. But Vera was not affected by societal pressures from classmates or discouraged from speaking Armenian; she simply did not speak it, apparently because of the company of Jack and her beloved cartoons. Her situation serves as a reminder of how fragile heritage language knowledge is, even before a speaker encounters the influences of school and other English-speaking institutions.
In the meantime, Greg and Nora report that Vera has recently begun uttering words, and occasionally constructing simple sentences, in Armenian. They still have a hard time understanding what she says, and it's not clear whether she will go on to speak the language comfortably.
"Some of the things that parents can do is speak the language as much as possible in the home…expose them to the language, and immerse them in the culture," suggests Oh. Yet she is also quick to point out that there still isn't enough evidence, or research, to provide a complete understanding of what can be done to prevent heritage loss in the home. The same goes for heritage language retention. Oh advises: "It's important to have people [the children] admire, who speak that language, to help children develop their home language skills so that they can continue to maintain it."
Despite continued problems with communication, the Naskhulyans are very much a close-knit family. "I think it's just one of those weird situations," Jack suggests. "It also comes with the territory. In L.A. there are so many cultures and languages, and our home is sort of like a microcosm of that."
Published: Thursday, February 01, 2007