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Why I’m Teaching My Daughter My Mother’s Language

6 minute read
Obreht is a novelist, whose debut, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was an international bestseller. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and Zoetrope: All-Story, among many others. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, she now lives in Wyoming with her family

Late in January 2024, cantilevered over my husband’s shoulder in line at our favorite coffeeshop, my toddler roared out one of her usual requests: “Tata, please bring maca and capall to folcadan.”

“Oh honey,” the woman standing behind us laughed. “That’s a mouthful.”

My husband explained that our daughter was asking him to bring her farmhouse figurines, a cat and a horse, along to the bathtub. (Reader, there was no bathtub; or rather, the bathtub was at home, as were the cat and the horse figurines.)

“What language is she speaking?” the stranger wanted to know.

We explained the linguistic arrangement of our household: my husband is from Dublin, and speaks Irish; I was born in the former Yugoslavia, and speak Serbian; we met in New York and communicate in English. Now living in Wyoming, we are trying our best to raise our daughter with all three languages.

I am still surprised by how many people smirk when they hear this. “Oh wow,” they tend to say. "That’ll be useful.”

What they mean, I assume, is that neither Serbian nor Irish is an especially proliferate language. Irish, spoken by an estimated 1.2 million people, is categorized as “definitely endangered” by the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages. Serbian is the first language of about 7.2 million people—though, once you venture outside the post-war nationalist designations that characterize Serbian as being entirely separate from, say, Croatian or Bosnian, the reach of the language grows. Still, native speakers tend to be concentrated in their countries of origin, as well as a smattering of communities to which they emigrated, as most of my maternal family did, after the wars of the 1990s. So if a language’s usefulness is measured by its ability to connect the speaker with a large proportion of the earth’s population, then yes, I suppose Irish and Serbian are surely on the lower end of the spectrum.

But I grew up measuring linguistic utility by a different set of parameters. Ones that spoke more to my family’s urge to seclude than their desire to connect.

My grandfather, a Slovene born and raised in Belgrade, spoke Ekavian, a standard dialect of what was then known as Serbo-Croatian. My grandmother, ethnically Muslim, spoke Ijekavian, a lilting dialect of Bosnia & Herzegovina that tends to lean into Turkish and Arabic roots. My mother, their only child, born in Sarajevo and raised in Belgrade, was a chameleon: she could, and still can, easily switch between both. When the war broke out, we moved first to Cyprus, then to Egypt. I managed to maintain fluency largely thanks to my grandmother’s dogged refusal to learn English, and my mother’s insistence that one must never lose one’s native language.  

Her reasons for this had to do with its utility, but as a mechanism of preservation rather than communication. As is true of many immigrants, our language served as a container of all things home. Proverbs, jokes, witticisms rooted in socio-historical context. Family stories. Recipes. Swear words, of course—and lots of them. Translation eroded some aspect of them all, and thus eroded the parts of my grandparents and mother that made them their whole, complex, fully rounded selves.

But most crucially for my mother, Serbian served as a kind of escape hatch out of precarious situations. She would glide in and out of the language, usually as a protective measure against threats that were not apparent to me. “Start crying,” she might say in Serbian, when she realized that strange men were following us around a grocery store. “Make a scene.”

We were fortunate at that time to be living in places that had huge international communities, and where the use of a foreign language was not something to be remarked upon, or even noticed, as it often is in America. My peers at the small international school I attended were the children of expatriates and asylum seekers from all over the world. Bilinguality was the default. But even then, most people’s second language was Greek or French or Dutch or Arabic, and the communities to whom this language was available were bigger. My mother and grandparents and I were cocooned by the rarity of our language.

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(Of course, sometimes we misjudged the extent of that rarity. In one particularly memorable instance, a little while after we had come to the United States, a woman banged her grocery cart into my mother in a Walmart parking lot. My mother smiled cheerfully. “Go fuck yourself,” she said in Serbian, and steered our cart away. A few minutes later, the woman caught up to us in the produce aisle. “Excuse me,” she said, also in Serbian. “You go f*xck yourself.”)

For the most part, our shared language served as a fulcrum of our relationship, a kind of room to which my mother and I could both teleport, a place of secrets and frustrations. To this day, in heated exchanges, we both head there, all the better to hurl invectives that are as precise as possible at one another. When I want to share something difficult or emotionally charged with my mother, I tend to say, “I don’t know how to say this.” Her inevitable response is, “probaj maternjim”—try your mother tongue. Every so often, some long-forgotten word or phrase comes slamming out of the disused recesses of my memory. I ask my mother about its etymology, and then look for ways to use it in conversation with her, or translate it to see if it works in conversational English. When that fails, it inevitably ends up in my writing.

All this, the good and the bad, reinforces the bond between us. I want this bond for myself and my daughter, my daughter and her father, his people and mine.

At the heart of this desire, I think, is the life each of us can allow ourselves to imagine for our children. When my mother named me “Tea,” she did not imagine that I would end up living in a country, much less making my living in a language, in which that particular arrangement of letters had an entirely different pronunciation and meaning—one that would, I must pettily admit, frustrate me forever. She did not imagine that the war would come, that her homeland would tear itself apart, and that the things she thought she knew, and the life for which she sought to prepare me, would no longer be useful. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I, too, have no idea what may or may not be useful for my daughter. I want her to speak my language, and her father’s, too, because I want her to be a chameleon, like my mother is; because I have no idea what camouflage she will need to survive the things I cannot imagine.

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