Communicating in Two Languages

By Jessleen Dhaliwal

My mother and I speak two different languages; she speaks Punjabi and I speak English. We choose to speak different tongues. My mother asks a question in Punjabi, and I answer in English. Even though we communicate, the truth in our words is lost.

I never understood how our words lost meaning until I read Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. Tan describes language as a key factor in the cultural gap between Chinese mothers and their American daughters. In each story, there were misunderstandings because neither the mother nor the daughter understood one another. After reading The Joy Luck Club, I wanted to understand why my mother and I spoke different languages. Was it my limited knowledge of Indian culture? Or was it my mother’s fractured English? How could we speak, yet not understand each other?

When I finally asked my mother, she replied with a simple answer. In Punjabi, my mother said, “That is the way it has always been.”

But my mother’s answer did not bring me peace of mind. Instead, like the character June in The Joy Luck Club, I was concerned that I too would grow up without knowing my mother. To prevent that from happening, I began answering my mother in Punjabi. Just by talking to my mother in the same language, I learned more about Indian culture and how it shapes my identity as an Indian-American. Although Indian and American ideals tend to clash, I have learned to appreciate Indian culture for my family values and American culture for my individuality. I understand now that all the time that I thought  speaking less Punjabi would make me more American, I actually was  putting myself at a disadvantage. By speaking English when my mother talked in Punjabi, conversations with my mother were left incomplete.

I’m glad that  The Joy Luck Club brought this divide to my attention. After spending most of my childhood unaware of my heritage, I do not want my own daughter to feel the same way. When I have a child of my own, I will talk to her in Punjabi. because then she will have a better understanding of her Indian heritage and also because accepting her Indian culture will not make her any less American.

Before I understood my roots, my mother and I spoke different languages. She limited herself to Punjabi, and I limited myself to English. We did not know how else to communicate. But now we both try to understand the other person. My mother speaks more English, and I speak more Punjabi. My mother and I speak both languages.

Jessleen was born and raised in Sacramento, CA and would love to travel the world after graduation. She is interested in pursuing her Masters in Education, and thereafter working in an administrative role at a university.  She is a true dessert connoisseur and believes breakfast can be eaten at any time during the day.