Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California
US & World

Readers weigh in: Does not speaking your family's native tongue make you any less culturally authentic?

After San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro delivered the keynote address during the Democratic National Convention last week, part of the conversation afterward revolved around his lack of fluency in Spanish. Yet as a third-generation Texan of Mexican descent, is someone like Castro really expected to be fluent in the language of his immigrant grandmother?

Not so, if you look at the way language evolves across immigrant generations. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, native language fluency drops off with each generation; among Latinos, only one in four among the third generation are fluent in Spanish. A post earlier this week discussed this, as well as whether not being fluent in the language of one's immigrant ancestors makes one any less culturally "authentic" as a member of that group. After all, while language serves as a cultural bridge, there are other aspects of ancestral culture that get passed on.

Here are a few of the reactions that came in via the comments and on Twitter. Elson Trinidad wrote:

YUP! I'm Filipino and many other Filipinos (ESPECIALLY the ones in the Philippines, who not related to me of course) think I'm some alien from another planet because I don't speak Tagalog. My ethnicity is even questioned by Philippine-born people who happen to have lighter skin and European or Chinese features.

Deanna C. replied:

I agree with you. I'm first generation on my dad's side, and 2nd on my mother's. Living in Hawaii it wasn't a big deal that I didn't speak the language. Here in the mainland the other Filipinos don't want to talk to me because I don't speak Tagalog which wasn't even the dialect that either my parents' families spoke. I'm still as Filipino as the next one though...and if anything, I'm American.

Halhurst wrote:

If there is a second language in use in your community, you are better off learning it, and understanding the culture of your neighbors. If you can learn it from your grandparents, so much the better. But promoting "authenticity" is rubbish. It's conforming to a stereotype, of which you know very little. Be yourself! Luxuriate in the folklore of your ancestors, but don't ask others to validate you because, for instance, you speak German or wear leather shorts. 

Christinielsen wrote:

What I am is an authentic American. Do I speak my paternal side's Danish? No. Do I speak my maternal side's French? Yes. Does either matter in my authenticity? NO.

Sun (@yusibin) tweeted: 

Are you more authentic being forced to learn a language you don't want to speak and feel no affinity with?

SonnyLe (@sonnylebythebay) tweeted (two tweets combined):

Silly? that's ONLY asked of Asian/Latino immigrants, not European. Advantageous 2b bilingual, not 'authentic.' ... Same vain as being asked where you're fr by a white person. White ppl are shocked when I ask them same question.

Back in the comments section, Bfdd wrote:

My grandparents came over from Lithuania and by the time they had kids they had already given up their native tongue, not to mention had changed their name. I feel nothing was lost nor am I any less "authentic" of a person for it. I was also raised in Southern California in areas that were heavily "Hispanic." I've always found it funny how hard some try to hold on to their "identity" like it is what defines them. IMO They are to busy looking outward and not looking inward.

And NR wrote:

I'm third generation Danish American, and I have no idea how to speak Danish. My ancestors wanted to assimilate and be American. They preseved no aspect of Danish culture in our family. The only thing Danish about me is my last name.

There are many good themes here, including the one brought up by Sun. It's one that children of immigrants who have been pressured to speak or learn their parents' native language can no doubt relate to. I have my parents to thank for my being bilingual today, but I'm sure I felt that way once.

More thoughts on this? Anecdotes? Feel free to post them below.