Lost In Translation : Code Switch Today on the show, we're bringing you the stories of two families grappling with how best to communicate across linguistic differences. In the first story, a young man sorts through how to talk to his parents about gender in Chinese, where the words for "he" and "she" sound exactly the same. Then, we follow a family who was advised to stop speaking their heritage language, Japanese, based on some outdated and incomplete research.

Lost In Translation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1115176145/1115323734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Remember me? I helped create this podcast. I hosted it for a minute, and I'm back because this episode is all about one of my obsessions, language - specifically, language loss and what's lost in translation when you can't communicate fluently in your parents' first language. I've talked a lot about the power of language on CODE SWITCH - how language can both unite and divide...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't hate the term POC.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think it's fine.

LAUREN: It's just an excuse for people to not want to say Black people.

MERAJI: ...How language is used to demonize and dehumanize certain communities...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

OTTO SANTA ANA: The major one was immigrants as animals. They were pack animals. They were coyotes. They were pollos.

MERAJI: ...How reclaiming your language can bring you closer to who you are and where you come from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEIKI KAWAI'AE'A: I had this big, grand idea that one day, when I had children, that Hawaiian would be their first language.

MERAJI: That was one of my absolute favorite CODE SWITCH episodes. It was about a small group of native Hawaiians who took it upon themselves to revitalize their language while they were still learning how to speak it. It was such an honor to report that story and to co-host this show for nearly six years. And for those of you who don't know, I left CODE SWITCH because I got the opportunity of a lifetime to be a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. And today, the stories you're going to hear were made by two recent graduates of Berkeley's J-school. One of those stories digs into why one family made a difficult and heart-wrenching decision not to speak their heritage language - Japanese.

YASUKO BLOOM: I thought that being bilingual is - it could be a great gift.

MERAJI: But before we get into that, the first story you're going to hear is also about family relationships and language, but a different family, a different language and a different set of questions - like this one. How do you talk about your gender identity in a language you can't speak that well - a language where the pronouns for he and she sound the same? A brief warning for listeners - there is a reference to suicide in this piece. And to tell it, I'm turning things over to Elena Neal-Sacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELENA NEALE-SACKS: Emmett Chen-Ran grew up in the U.S., and his parents grew up in China. But it wasn't until he was in his teens that he realized exactly what that might mean.

EMMETT CHEN-RAN: I was reading this thing one time about how, like, immigrants are sort of stuck in the cultural values of the time period of their home country when they left, and that, when they leave their home country - like, even if the home country becomes more progressive in their absence, they, in the new country, still think that their home country is the way that they left it.

NEALE-SACKS: Emmett's 24 years old now, and he lives in San Francisco. He was actually born in China, but his family moved to New York when he was 5.

CHEN-RAN: I remember I watched, like, some Chinese dramas with my mom when I was in elementary school, and a lot of our shared experiences were over food.

NEALE-SACKS: Food and TV were among the things that Emmett and his parents bonded over, but there were and still are a lot of reasons they don't see eye-to-eye. Part of the distance between them has to do with a language barrier. Emmett was so young when they moved to the U.S., and he never went to Chinese school - never got a formal Chinese language education.

CHEN-RAN: I don't think I've ever been prepared, my entire life, to, like, give us soliloquy about my feelings in Chinese because so much of my Chinese is utility-based - like, things like ordering food at a restaurant or things like - I don't know - talking about everyday practical logistics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: Although Emmett was never friends with his parents, for the first several years of his life, he and his mom spent almost all their time together.

CHEN-RAN: I remember there was, like - during a summer probably around second grade, we would spend every day just, like, watching cartoons, playing badminton outside. But then she started working. And also, around that time, my first brother was born, and he's special needs, so I think a lot of the dynamics shifted in terms of, like, taking care of him.

NEALE-SACKS: So Emmett's mom got a lot busier, and then Emmett's dad started his own law firm. And his mom, who's also a lawyer, quit her job to work there. So that meant Emmett spent even less time with his parents.

CHEN-RAN: Even though they would go to work at like 9 or 10, they usually wouldn't come back till, like, 8 or 9.

NEALE-SACKS: And then there's his parents' religious beliefs - that widened the distance between Emmett and his parents, too.

CHEN-RAN: I think they were always sort of, like, by the book for a long time. And then, when they came to the U.S., they got into Christianity and became even more by the books.

NEALE-SACKS: Throughout middle school, they would send Emmett to summer Bible camp.

CHEN-RAN: And there was someone there who identified as a girl at the time, who is now nonbinary, and they were, like, super butch. And I remember just having this massive crush on them, but I think they were just, like, super sure of themself and, like, super confident in being, like, masculine. And, at the time, I was like, I don't know if I want to be them or, like, date them or - like, I don't know.

NEALE-SACKS: It's like the quintessential queer experience - a Bible camp crush. So anyway, in high school, Emmett started to dress more masculine. He would stroll through the halls in basketball shorts and sleeveless tanks.

CHEN-RAN: Athleisure, I think, was my picture of, like, what masculine women should dress like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: During high school, he started seriously considering hormone therapy. But since he was only 17, he thought he needed his parents to sign off.

CHEN-RAN: And I've never been good at talking to my parents about emotions. And, like, this was sort of peak uncomfortable conversation, so I think I was, like, literally trembling the entire time - but not 'cause I was, like, scared to tell them, but because just the act of voicing these things was so uncomfortable for me. I had pulled up the Google translation of transgender in Chinese just so I could ground, like, that term in their cultural understanding of what it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: As he prepared to come out to his parents, Emmett was grappling with a lot, but a particular challenge was deciding which language to use. He wanted to say everything in Chinese - his parents' native language - but he wasn't sure he could find the right words. So ultimately, he went with English.

It was a fall night during his senior year of high school when Emmett decided to have the conversation. He had been thinking about it for years. He was shaking. When he got up to go find his parents, every detail of his surroundings started coming into sharp focus.

CHEN-RAN: And I told them, like, I've been thinking about this for a number of years now, and I'm pretty sure I'm transgender, and I want to be a man. And I know that is, like, not even the language that we use to talk about it nowadays, but to just sort of put it in terms of their understanding. And for dramatic effect, I was sort of like, but I might kill myself if I don't transition 'cause, I think, like, it wasn't too much of a stretch to think, like - I - my quality of life definitely would've been, like, severely impacted if I wasn't allowed to transition. And in that conversation with my parents, though, I definitely didn't bring up a lot of this doubt that I had because I wanted them to take me seriously and to not try to delay things or stand in my way.

NEALE-SACKS: Emmett still remembers vividly the way his parents responded when he told them he's trans. His mom cried. He avoided making eye contact with them. His dad...

CHEN-RAN: My dad was making this face that he does whenever any mention of, like, unchristian things come up. Like, he would always make this face when I read, like, the Harry Potter books, even. He was like, it's witchcraft and sorcery and all the satanic things that, like, the Bible says to not engage in.

NEALE-SACKS: So it didn't go great. But, over time, his parents mellowed out - sort of. Instead of tears and furrowed brows, Emmett got used to just not knowing what his parents were thinking when it came to his gender.

CHEN-RAN: I've honestly never gone in depth with, like, explaining why I think I'm trans beyond that initial coming-out talk because I don't really have the words for it. And by, like, not having the words, I feel like I could explain it in English, but I don't want to because I don't think they would pick up on, like, all the nuance of what I'm saying because most of what they use English for is, like, the workplace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: About a year after that first conversation with his parents, Emmett was still nervous about how they'd identify him in public. When it came time to move into his dorm room at Yale, he tried to keep them from meeting people. He was afraid they'd misgender him.

CHEN-RAN: I think the other parents probably chalked that up to, like, them being not native English speakers. And my parents also habitually slip up with pronouns - even with people that are, like, cis and who are their friends and stuff - when they speak in English about them. So I remember, before move-in day, in my head, I was like, if they do slip up and call me she, and someone asks about it, I'll just be like, they're just bad at English. And I was like - I know I'd be sort of problematically throwing them under the bus as immigrants, but it's life or death here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: It's been six years since college move-in day. Emmett's now a product manager, and a lot has changed, but he still sits with one question - do his parents still view him as their daughter? When they talk about him in Chinese, since the pronouns for he and she sound the same, he can't tell if they're misgendering him. And in English, they misgender him all the time. But is that because English isn't their first language, or is it because they don't see him as their son?

I know last time we talked, you were, like, yeah, you guys can talk to my mom.

CHEN-RAN: (Laughter).

NEALE-SACKS: I don't want to talk to my mom. Is that still very much...

CHEN-RAN: Yeah, that's still in case.

NEALE-SACKS: Yeah. Cool. OK.

So we called up Emmett's mom, Yanfei Ran. When we talked to Yanfei, she referred to Emmett by his initials, ECR, pronounced as Ecker (ph). And throughout our interview, Yanfei never said Emmett. During our conversation with her, she would go back and forth between using he/him and she/her pronouns to refer to Emmett. And when we asked her about that, Yanfei said she mostly mixes up Emmett's pronouns because of those linguistic differences between Chinese and English.

YANFEI RAN: Yeah. I think it's the language. It's - Chinese is just like the Japanese. So when we mention a he, she - where we use ta - it's the same pronunciation, so there's no distinguishing between he or she. We just use ta.

NEALE-SACKS: But there's another reason that Yanfei isn't completely comfortable with Emmett's transition.

RAN: When you become a father or mother, you will know. Your parents always want your kids at best, and your parents always want you to be healthy, happy.

NEALE-SACKS: Emmett told us that he suspected his physical health was one of his mom's biggest fears about him transitioning - that she was hyperfocused on the possible side effects from hormone therapy and surgery.

RAN: I think it's the health is the most concern for me even now. I really think he is just, like, destroying himself gradually.

NEALE-SACKS: She never talked about his mental health, though, what Emmett described as the impact to his quality of life if he hadn't been able to transition.

RAN: However, he is my child, so even sometimes when I saw him, I still feel lost. I still feel painful in my heart. However, gradually, I think I'm gradually, like, accepting him as him, not her anymore. As a mother, again, you just always want your child to be happy and to be supportive. So even when we don't support her idea, however, this family is always, like, just tolerate her or him and always welcome him home. And this is his home, and I'm his mother forever. That's the most important thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEALE-SACKS: After talking to his mom, we had one more question we wanted to ask Emmett. What would his ideal relationship with his parents look like?

CHEN-RAN: Ideally, I think they would be like my friends in that I could confide both my triumphs and my doubts about, like, trans-related things to them, because I still do think that if I voice any doubts or any sort of, like, negative thoughts about being trans to them, they would see it as confirmation bias of, like, see, you shouldn't be trans. And so I wish ideally that I would be able to have this, like, multifaceted relationship about being trans with them without them taking it as, like, evidence of their beliefs being supported. I think I'm at a point in my life where I - like, all of society basically sees me as my gender, and so it doesn't really matter to me if they misgender me in their heads as long as I don't feel, like, the ramifications of that in our interactions. And so when my mom does things like that, it's sort of like a cherry on top in terms of, like, her affirming my gender, but I don't need her to when I'm home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That was Elena Neale-Sacks. Elena's a narrative writer and audio producer from Davis, Calif. She co-reported that last piece with Isabella Bloom. And we're going to be hearing from Izzy after the break. She's going to share a different family story about language, this one about why her mother's dream to teach her and her brother Japanese fell apart. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen - just Shereen - CODE SWITCH.

Izzy Bloom got used to telling people the same story when they asked if she could speak her heritage language, Japanese. She'd say she isn't as good as she would like to be because her mom didn't teach her older brother, and because he wasn't taught Japanese, neither was she - simple enough. But the real story is much more complicated. Here's Izzy.

ISABELLA BLOOM: My parents, Ira and Yasuko Bloom, met in Japan in 1986 in Okayama. My mom was working as a fashion designer, and my dad, who's American, was living there for a few years, teaching English.

IRA BLOOM: It was - was it New Year's Eve or - it was a couple of days before New Year's, right?

Y BLOOM: It was New Year's party.

IRA BLOOM: It was a New Year's party - right. I was with my friend Tokamori (ph), and we were sitting down at this yakitori-ya. And Tok-san (ph) said, are you going to go talk to her? And I said, I don't know. She's really pretty. And he said, if you don't go talk to her, I'll go talk to her. And so he started to stand up. I put my hand on his knee, and I said, no, I'll go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: He walked over to her table and introduced himself.

Y BLOOM: He was loud (laughter), not shy. You know, when I started talking to him, he was funny. He tried to make a joke.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Just three months later, my parents were engaged. And five months after that, they got married and moved to the United States.

Y BLOOM: You know, I wanted to have a different challenge for my life, and it was not a difficult decision for me to come to the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: I can't imagine myself meeting someone, and then just, months later, marrying them and moving across the world to a country where I barely speak the language. But for my mom, it's kind of fitting. I've always known her to be determined and purposeful - someone who knows what she wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: Not long after she and my dad moved to the U.S., they started a women's clothing line in California. Once their business was steady, they bought a house, and my mom got pregnant with my brother, Max. My parents love telling stories about how my older brother, Max, was the easiest baby.

IRA BLOOM: He would go up to anybody and just raise his arms up, and they would - to be picked up - and people - complete strangers would pick him up, and they would make a big fuss over him. He was a really cute kid.

Y BLOOM: That's what I remember - when you're raising a baby, every moment is - this the best time. How far is it going to go - the best time?

ISABELLA BLOOM: Today, my mom speaks English really well, as you can hear, but this is after living in the U.S. for 35 years. Back then, when Max was born...

Y BLOOM: I worried about my kids doesn't understand who I am - what I really meant - not only linguistically. It's just as a person.

ISABELLA BLOOM: What do you mean by that?

Y BLOOM: I did worry about if I - if you - if my kids doesn't understand the Japanese, maybe never get to really know me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: So my mom spoke to Max exclusively in Japanese. When he was a newborn, she loved carrying Max and singing Japanese lullabies to him.

Y BLOOM: (Singing in Japanese).

I carrying around and walking around the house and very calm. And I was singing, you know, the song. And then he sleeps.

(Singing in Japanese).

ISABELLA BLOOM: But Max wasn't really picking up Japanese - or English, which my dad was speaking to him.

IRA BLOOM: We didn't - had never had a baby before, so we didn't really know how profound his developmental delay was. I mean, not only that, but his doctor told us that he was fine. And the developmental delay he wasn't concerned about, so we weren't concerned about it.

Y BLOOM: I was.

IRA BLOOM: Well, yeah.

Y BLOOM: I was always...

IRA BLOOM: She was always a little...

Y BLOOM: ...Concerned that...

IRA BLOOM: Yeah - because he never hit his milestones like other kids.

Y BLOOM: I read every single book. Even though I remember - I was searching that milestone like Max had, and I didn't know how severe his development, but I knew something wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: According to my mom, Max never actually crawled. He didn't sit up until he was 6 months old, and he didn't say his first word until he was 2 years old. Once my mom started taking Max to day care, the difference between him and other kids his age was so glaringly obvious. She insisted on getting Max genetically tested.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: Max was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, or PWS. It's a rare genetic disorder. At the time, in 1997, everything my mom read about it would only heighten her concern. The most distinct condition for people with PWS is hyperphagia, an unrelenting hunger and compulsive urge to consume food. Basically, the trigger in most of our brains that tells us we've had enough food is missing in my brother, so he'll rummage in garbage cans and steal the cat's food and needs constant supervision. Along with a lack of impulse control, Max has learning disabilities and physical challenges, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAX BLOOM: Hi. My name's Max Bloom. I'm 27 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: Can you tell me what you're doing?

M BLOOM: I'm playing my Pac-Man thing - Pac-Man arcade game.

ISABELLA BLOOM: I'm at my brother's care home in Northern California. It's like a group home for adults, specifically for people with PWS, because he needs a lot of support and 24/7 supervision.

M BLOOM: Prader-Willi syndrome is a syndrome where you never feel full. You have anger problems. You have trouble keeping up with your hygiene. And that's about it.

ISABELLA BLOOM: We're in his room, which he shares with one other person. Before I came over, he made his bed and lined up his action figures on the windowsill.

Can you describe to me what you're wearing right now?

M BLOOM: I'm wearing a fluorescent shirt with birds and camouflage pants.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Max loves mixing and matching colors and patterns.

M BLOOM: And I have my flame-print shoes that I got from my girlfriend. I have my necklaces that I made with my girlfriend.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Can you count how many bracelets and how many necklaces you're wearing right now?

M BLOOM: Yes. Let me count. I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 - 10 bracelets, not including the watch. And three necklaces. I know it's a little extreme, but that's how I like dressing. That's how I like looking.

ISABELLA BLOOM: What does it feel like for you to have Prader-Willi syndrome?

M BLOOM: It feels like for me that - it's just hard to do things and stuff. And it's hard to fit in and it's hard to have your life be full of this. Like, you don't get to, like, have, like, a full-time job. You don't get to drive. You don't get to do that type of stuff.

ISABELLA BLOOM: What do you think is, like, the hardest part of having Prader-Willi syndrome?

M BLOOM: People understanding you, people understanding how you feel, just communication-wise is hardest.

ISABELLA BLOOM: After he was diagnosed, Max's pediatrician told our parents they should stop talking to him in Japanese. His language development at this point was so delayed that our parents feared if he didn't get a grasp on English soon, he'd face even more difficulties in school. He wouldn't be able to socialize with other kids. He'd have a harder time learning.

IRA BLOOM: We were ready to go along with anything to get him to start talking.

ISABELLA BLOOM: And I've kind of always believed that this was the reason I wasn't raised bilingual. When people ask me if I know any Japanese - which happens all the time - this is the story I tell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: When my brother was diagnosed, his doctors told our parents not to raise him in a bilingual household. And so when I was born five years after Max, it was just too complicated for my mom to only speak to one child in Japanese. But for my mom, this was a huge loss because, like she said, it was really important for her children to truly know her, to know the person she is in Japanese.

Y BLOOM: Using my own language is - even the way I think, way I express, is different. When I go back to Japan still, I always feel relaxed because of I don't need to listen to it.

ISABELLA BLOOM: You're saying, like, there's a part of your personality or there's a part of the way you think that doesn't come out in English?

Y BLOOM: Maybe come out a little differently.

ISABELLA BLOOM: I wanted to know if the recommendations my parents had gotten from Max's doctors had any scientific validity. Is it detrimental to raise a child with Prader-Willi syndrome in a bilingual household?

ESTELA GARCIA-ALCARAZ: The main focus of our study was to analyze the effects of bilingualism among the Prader-Willi syndrome population.

ISABELLA BLOOM: That's Estela Garcia-Alcaraz. She's an assistant professor at the University of Balearic Islands in Spain. And in February 2021, she published her dissertation about PWS and bilingualism. It's the only study I could find focusing on the rare syndrome my brother has.

GARCIA-ALCARAZ: We consistently don't find evidences of a negative effect of bilingualism.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Here's Juana Liceras. She's the supervising professor for Garcia-Alcaraz' study.

JUANA LICERAS: And it doesn't interfere with communication, thinking or work.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Liceras is a linguist and has a son with PWS. His name is Ivo (ph). By the time Ivo was diagnosed at 11 years old, he was already bilingual. Liceras raised him to speak both English and Spanish. English because they live in Canada and Spanish because that's Ivo's heritage language.

LICERAS: Other advantages that my son was not deprived of because he was bilingual. He could go to Spain, he could talk to all our friends, to his family there, and he felt proud of it.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Liceras pointed out to me that bilingualism may be even more beneficial when it's your heritage language because just like in my case, it affects the way the rest of the family communicates, the way cultures pass down.

Do you think that your family dynamic would have been different if Ivo didn't learn his heritage language?

LICERAS: I think so. His brother would not have continued with Spanish and would not have been bilingual. It is so important in the case of the heritage language, when it is the family in the house, that that should be encouraged.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Along with talking to Garcia-Alcaraz and Liceras, I read lots of studies and research papers about the effect of multilingualism on kids with autism or Down syndrome. And again and again, it was the same result.

I had always kind of accepted this idea that Max's doctors were right. I guess intuitively, it made sense to me that if your child's language development is delayed, then, yeah, learning two languages is probably more confusing and you should just cut back to one. But that's just not the case.

BETTY YU: The U.S. situation is that you really need to prove yourself with English before your multilingualism is seen as an asset.

ISABELLA BLOOM: That's Betty Yu.

YU: I'm a professor in the speech, language and hearing sciences department at San Francisco State University.

ISABELLA BLOOM: She says bilingualism is perceived as good or bad depending on who you are. If you're in a privileged situation or your access to English is really solid, then knowing more languages is viewed as an advantage.

YU: It's tied up a lot with views on immigration, on race. Language can't be divorced from those things. You know, bilingualism is often seen as a barrier to the achievement of a norm. So when we're talking about disability, disability as something that's seen as abnormal, those two things sort of mutually enforce each other.

ISABELLA BLOOM: The research is spreading about the benefits of speaking more than one language for all of us, neurodivergent or not. But Betty Yu still hears from parents who are advised not to raise children with developmental disabilities in a bilingual household.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISABELLA BLOOM: Do you wish that you learned Japanese growing up?

M BLOOM: Yes. It would make life a lot easier to understand my mom, my dad and my - so I can talk to my family in Japan.

ISABELLA BLOOM: But why is that important to you?

M BLOOM: It's important to me because I want to be able to fit in there.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Do you think you definitely could have learned Japanese?

M BLOOM: Definitely, yeah. If my mom could have - my mom taught it to me, yeah.

ISABELLA BLOOM: I shared everything I'd found out with our mom, all this new research. And I really expected her to say if she could do it all over again, she'd raise Max bilingual.

Y BLOOM: You know, what made his life different, at this point, I don't know if his bilingual made him so different.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Are you mad at any of those doctors, or are you...

Y BLOOM: No...

ISABELLA BLOOM: ...Resentful?

Y BLOOM: ...I don't mad. It - because he was - finally, it's my decisions. I made the decisions.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Do you blame yourself?

Y BLOOM: I could do better.

ISABELLA BLOOM: How?

Y BLOOM: To stay bilingual.

ISABELLA BLOOM: You could have fought harder, you think?

Y BLOOM: You don't need to fight with it because I'm the one doing the bilingual. They suggest I don't think it's no good idea. That's what that - their opinions. So I take opinions, and I make actions. So it's my decision.

ISABELLA BLOOM: When we talked earlier, you had said that one of your biggest fears about not raising Max bilingual, and then me, is that your children wouldn't understand you. But then you said that that didn't happen.

Y BLOOM: No. It didn't happen.

ISABELLA BLOOM: Why?

Y BLOOM: Why? To me, to be the best parents is how to listen to what your kid says rather than pushing my words to the children.

ISABELLA BLOOM: But what makes you think that me and Max understand you?

Y BLOOM: Because we talk. We talk with each other, even in English. And I'm not 100% Japanese anymore. I don't know - who am I? Am I American? Am I Japanese? Where's my own country? I'm - when I go to Japan, I'm a little bit stranger. Of course, when I'm in United States, I'm a little bit stranger. And that's what I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That was Izzy Bloom. Izzy's an audio producer in Berkeley, Calif.

I'm sure there's many of you out there thinking right now about all the languages you speak or don't speak and the reasons why or why not. My mom's first language is Spanish. My dad's is Persian or Farsi. And mine - well, my mom says my first words were in her language, Spanish. But that didn't last long 'cause by the time I was in kindergarten, I was responding to everyone who spoke to me in Spanish in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Unfortunately, I don't have any childhood connection to Persian. My father never spoke it at home, and it's something that he deeply regrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Over the years, I've tried to learn more Spanish. I'll promise to only speak Spanish with my Puerto Rican family, but it never takes long before someone gets frustrated and reverts back to English. Usually it's me. I'm embarrassed. They're embarrassed for me. And the shame cycle continues. I desperately want to find proficiency in at least one of my heritage languages before I die, and I know I'm not alone.

It's really hard not to feel like a fake when you're claiming an identity and you can't fluently communicate in the language associated with that identity. And now I face a brutal reality. In just one generation, my multicultural, multilingual family will have lost both of its heritage languages. And that's something that keeps me up at night. But the thought of stopping that from happening is even more daunting. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: ...I'm trying once again to learn Spanish. And this time, I asked for help from experts in heritage language learning and people who are also trying to learn their heritage languages like me. And you can find that on NPR's "Life Kit" podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that's our show. We want to hear from you, so email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Follow us on Twitter and IG. We're @nprcodeswitch. And subscribe to the newsletter by going to newsletters.npr.org.

This episode was reported by Elena Neale-Sacks and Isabella Bloom. It was originally edited by me and Ethan Toven-Lindsey. The CODE SWITCH version was edited by Leah Donnella and produced by Kumari Devarajan. Thanks also to Erika Aguilar, Anna Sussman, Kori Suzuki, Gracelynne West, Sofie Kodner, Steven Rascon and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Karen Grigsby Bates, Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Christina Cala, Dalia Mortada, Summer Thomad, Diba Mohtasham, Steve Drummond, Gene Demby and B.A. Parker. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.