Learning My Mother’s Native Language Opened Doors

Ali Tanaka, Leadership Fellow and Teaching Associate, shares her honest perspective on her journey of learning her mother’s native language, Japanese. Find out more and start your own fall language learning experience with Global Language Network for personal and professional growth in 27 languages.

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My parents-a first generation immigrant from Japan, and a fourth generation Japanese-American-gave me the middle name Yui, which means “to tie.” Their hope was that I would be able to connect the two cultures that make up my background.

I grew up speaking rudimentary Japanese and English while learning Spanish in school. I struggled with the duality of my identity. Serving as a cultural liaison between Japanese and American individuals was something that was expected of me; thankfully, my parents did not pressure me to fill that role, but I can’t say the same for some other authority figures in my life. 

At the time, however, I didn’t enjoy that expectation. I felt like a fraud. I had never lived in Japan and understood very little about Japanese culture; how, I wondered, could I be expected to understand and represent Japanese culture when I had never lived there and had a very limited understanding of the culture?

It wasn’t until I went to Japan in the summer of 2005 that I realized just how much my rudimentary Japanese put me at a disadvantage; no one in my family understood English (save for one person) and no one spoke Spanish. Without Japanese, I realized, I had no way of communicating what I wanted or how I felt.

Learning my mother’s native language opened new doors for me. Understanding the language allowed me to understand her and by extension, the nuances of her culture. My language abilities have since allowed me to fulfill my parents’ hopes for me and enabled me to to take advantage of many opportunities; I recently returned to the United States from Japan, where I lived for nearly two years.

I am aware that my language abilities have enabled me to enjoy more than just career opportunities; speaking a second language has made me more empathetic, strengthened my intercultural communication skills, allowed me to make friends from all over the world, and given me different interests.

In retrospect, I am amazed that learning just one language has taken me so far in my career and shaped my personality so profoundly. I am excited to learn other languages at GLN and see where those languages can take me.

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