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When You Don't Learn Your Parent's Language, What Is Lost?

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A family - father, mother, young son and young daughter - pose for a photo.
Max (left) and Izzy Bloom and their mom, Yasuko, in a restaurant in Japan, circa 2002. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

Throughout my life, I’ve fielded the question of whether or not I speak Japanese. It’s my heritage language, because it’s the language my mom speaks.

But my mom never raised me to speak it. The reason goes back five years before I was born, when my mom was pregnant with my older brother, Max.

Breastfeeding and bilingualism

At the time, she made two firm parenting choices for her soon-to-be-born son: to raise him to be bilingual and to breastfeed him.

My mom considered breastfeeding the first positive thing she could do for the health of her newborn. But when he was born in 1994, Max wasn’t able to latch or suck. So instead, my mom used a pump to bottle-feed him.

“At that time, I thought it [was] because of me,” my mom, Yasuko Bloom, said. English isn’t her first language, so I’ve corrected it here for clarity. “I felt really bad. I felt like I failed at something I really wanted to do for him.”

A young girl and boy sit, giggling, in a basket.
Izzy (left) and Max Bloom giggling in a basket together, surrounded by their toys, on Dec. 22, 2001. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

She suspected there was a connection between Max’s inability to breastfeed and the difficult time she had giving birth to him. His heartbeat had been weak, so the doctor told my mom she’d have to perform an emergency cesarean. Then, when he was born, Max had undescended testicles, a weak cry and poor muscle tone.

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“I thought everything, it should be normal,” my mom said. “But it was very different from the beginning.”

The weak muscle tone turned out to be the reason Max wasn’t able to breastfeed. But when my mom brought her concerns to Max’s pediatrician, he brushed her off and told her that all first-time mothers worry. She recalls him telling her that everything was fine, and Max was a happy baby.

And it’s true, he was a happy baby, as she recalls. He rarely cried and was a delightfully friendly child who’d go up to strangers and stretch his chubby arms out, asking to be picked up, and melt, at complete ease, in their arms.

And once my mom made the switch from formula to regular food, she says Max had no problems eating. In fact, it seemed he would eat anything as a baby.

“We could go to a restaurant and order a plate of steamed broccoli,” my dad, Ira Bloom, said. “And he would sit there happily eating the steamed broccoli. And people, you know, their eyes were agog. Who was this kid eating the vegetables?”

From disbelief to acceptance

Even though my mom’s first nonnegotiable parenting goal fell through, she was still committed to teaching him his heritage language, Japanese.

My mom was born in Japan and met my dad, who’s American and white, in Okayama Prefecture in 1986. At the time, she was working as a fashion designer and my dad was teaching English. Three months after they met, my parents got engaged, moved to the United States and got married, eventually settling in Washington, D.C.

A family - father, mother, young son and young daughter - pose for a photo.
Ira, Yasuko, Izzy and Max Bloom on a family trip to northern Okayama Prefecture in Japan, circa 2005. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

Raising her children to be bilingual felt really important to my mom because she worried her kids wouldn’t understand her, not only linguistically, but she also feared we would never really know her.

“I did worry about if my kids didn’t understand Japanese, maybe [they’d] never really get to know me,” she said.

So for the first three years of Max's life, my mom spoke to him exclusively in Japanese. She fondly remembers carrying Max while walking through the house singing Japanese lullabies. Meanwhile, my dad spoke to him only in English, so Max could learn both languages.

But Max wasn’t really picking up either language. In fact, he wasn’t hitting any of the development milestones my parents expected to see: sitting upright, crawling, babbling, walking and talking. And when my mom started taking Max to day care, the differences between him and the other kids his age became glaringly obvious.

She insisted that Max get genetically tested.

In 1997, at the age of 3, Max was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome, or PWS.

“Even though he was delayed, I never expected that something is really totally wrong to carry on into his life,” my mom said. “I was expecting something wrong but, you know, maybe a little delay. But he would catch up at some point.”

But everything my mom read about the disorder only heightened her concern.

“The scary thing was reading the articles, and I was scared of the future,” she said. “What kind of future [is] waiting for him? For us?”

The most distinct symptom for people with PWS is hyperphagia, an unabating hunger and unrelenting, compulsive urge to consume food. They can also have physical challenges like a lack of muscle tone, stunted growth and poor motor skills, as well as cognitive deficits and profound learning disabilities. Many develop diabetes and life-threatening obesity, struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit issues, and can become aggressive in their pursuit of food.

“We were devastated, went through the grieving process,” my dad said of getting Max’s diagnosis. “I remember everything. Being angry. Denying it. Bargaining. You know, anger. Boy, that was really something. And then, you know, ultimately, acceptance.”

Bilingualism and disability

Once Max was diagnosed, his pediatrician and speech-language pathologists advised my mom against raising him in a bilingual household. His language development was already delayed, and they argued that adding a second language to the mix would only confuse him and further impede his ability to learn English.

I’d always believed that this was the reason I wasn’t raised bilingual. When people ask me if I speak Japanese, I explain my brother’s diagnosis, and how, when I came along five years after him, it was too complicated for my mom to only speak to one child in Japanese.

But this past year, I became obsessed with understanding the clinical recommendations my parents received, and sought to find out whether there really are any detriments to raising a child with PWS in a bilingual household.

A young girl and boy stand in a living room, with a Japanese garment hanging on the wall behind them.
Izzy and Max Bloom chat in the living room of their family home in Sebastopol in 2007. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

I pored over studies and research papers about the effects of multilingualism on children with autism and Down syndrome and eventually found Estela Garcia Alcaraz’s recent study, the only paper I could find focusing on my brother’s rare syndrome.

In her study, Garcia Alcaraz, a professor of Spanish, modern and classical languages at the University of Balearic Islands in Spain, investigated how bilingualism affects the cognitive and linguistic abilities of people with PWS.

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The participants in her study all had PWS, but some knew only Spanish while others spoke both Spanish and Catalan. Participants were directed to complete a variety of tasks, in an effort to determine how bilingualism affects the executive control, metalinguistic and narrative abilities of people with PWS.

“Our findings not only suggest that individuals with Prader-Willi Syndrome can become bilingual without evidence of negative effects,” Garcia Alcaraz wrote in her study, “but also that they can achieve a similar level of performance, or even outperform monolingual speakers in certain linguistic abilities in Spanish — the non-dominant language for the majority of the bilingual participants. Spanish-Catalan bilinguals showed comparable metalinguistic and narrative abilities in both their languages.”

Ultimately, I discovered that there’s no empirical data to support the idea that bilingualism is harmful to language development for children with PWS.

Which means the story I’ve been telling for most of my life about why I wasn’t raised to speak Japanese is not true.

Betty Yu, a speech and language professor at San Francisco State University, said research is “pretty conclusive” that bilingualism and multilingualism are assets for children with disabilities, regardless of their diagnoses.

“Once we started controlling for a lot of different other social factors, the bilingualism has not shown itself to be more taxing, to be interfering,” said Yu, whose research focuses on language development in multilingual children of color with disabilities. “One language doesn’t slow another one down. It doesn’t overwhelm the child.”

“In the U.S., what is so interesting is that we are probably the most plurilingual country in the world. We have a lot of languages that are being spoken,” she said. “But it's also one of the most aggressively ideologically monolingual countries in the world in that we really don't casually accept that multilingualism is normal and should be preserved.”

A young girl and boy, dressed in Halloween costumes, make funny faces.
Izzy and Max Bloom make silly faces on Halloween in 2007. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

Speech-language pathologists also are overwhelmingly white: The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s member demographic was 92% white, as of 2020.

Before the 1960s, psychologists viewed bilingualism as a disability in any child’s development. The “language handicap” theory, as it was known, can be traced back to anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 1900s.

“It’s tied up a lot with views on immigration, on race. Language can’t be divorced from those things,” Yu said. “Bilingualism is often seen as a barrier to the achievement of a norm. So when we’re talking about disability, as something seen as abnormal … those two things sort of mutually enforce each other.”

But since the 1960s, Yu said, “waves and waves of data” have confirmed the cognitive, social and cultural benefits of multilingualism for children.

And now, a growing body of research is confirming those same findings for children with disabilities.

Even so, Yu said, she continues to hear from parents of kids with disabilities who are advised by their children’s pediatricians and speech-language pathologists against raising their kids in multilingual households.

Communication is more than what we say

I carefully described these findings to my mom, thinking the information might make her feel somewhat regretful for not raising us to speak Japanese.

But instead, she told me that if she were to do it all again, she probably still wouldn’t raise us to be bilingual. At the time, Max’s diagnosis was a big enough challenge to tackle, she said.

“I don’t know if he’s bilingual [if it would make] him so different,” my mom said.

A family — young girl, mom, dad and young boy — pose in a field, with a large mountain in the background.
Izzy, Yasuko, Ira and Max Bloom on a family trip to Hiruzen, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, circa 2004. (Courtesy of the Bloom family)

But Max told me he wishes she had taught him Japanese. That’s because, just like when he was a baby, Max is still incredibly social. He calls up our dad’s family on the East Coast almost daily, usually to just tell our grandma what he ate that day. But he can’t call our mom’s family in Japan because he can’t understand them.

“It would [have] made life a lot easier to understand my mom and my dad, so I can talk to my family in Japan,” Max said, adding that he’s confident he would’ve been able to learn Japanese if our mom had taught it to him when he was growing up.

When I asked my mom if the big fear she once had — that her kids wouldn’t really understand her if they weren’t raised with their heritage language — had ever materialized, she said it really hadn’t. What she eventually realized, she explained to me, is that communication is more nuanced than just what we say.

That is, there’s so much more than just speech that is happening when we communicate, like body language, tone and attentive listening.

At the end of the interview with my dad, as he started walking away, he told me that beyond my mom’s ability to speak English relatively well, she has a tenacity to make sure you understand what she’s saying. Even if she has to repeat herself five times and phrase it in different ways, she always makes sure that people hear her, whether it’s in the workplace, with strangers or with us, her family.

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“I think that happens, living in a foreign country with a different language. [I] have to make sure, because I might be wrong,” my mom said in response to my dad. “And I don’t like to do mistake, I don’t like to be misunderstood.”

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