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Guest Post: Our Language is Everything!

ADAM’S NOTE: This blog has been graced with many insightful guest posts over the past 10 years and I highly recommend them all. Today’s guest post was written by trilingual speech-language pathologist Ana Paula Mumy and I feel honored to be able to share such a heartfelt and moving message. In fact, this is the fourth article that Ana Paula has written for Bilingual Monkeys and all of them are must-read posts:

Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays

Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome)

Engaging Your Incredible Bilingual Child in the Minority Language

Ana Paula’s bilingual journey with her family is also featured in my book Bilingual Success Stories Around the World.

Ana Paula, thank you so much for sharing your personal experience and professional expertise with all of us in so many helpful ways!

Our Language is Everything!

Ana Paula G. Mumy, SLPD, CCC-SLP, is a trilingual speech-language pathologist, program director, and professor. Dr. Mumy is the co-founder and president of Spero Stuttering, Inc., a nonprofit organization that seeks to help, empower, and advocate for the stuttering community and their families by equipping those who work with people who stutter. She received the National Stuttering Association’s 2022 Professional of the Year award for her work and initiatives through Spero Stuttering. She enjoys singing, writing, reading, traveling with her husband and kids, and fostering her children’s bilingual journeys.

X’unei Lance Twitchell, professor of Alaska Native Languages and language revitalization advocate, once said, “Our language is everything. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the blood that flows through our veins” (as cited in Ohle & Bartels, 2016, p. 2). I did not come to understand the depth and beauty of these words until the end of my parents’ lives.

An Unexpected Friday

It was a normal Spring Friday in May of 2019 when I got the call. My niece’s birthday dinner was interrupted with the news that my mom had suffered a car accident. Another unexpected occurrence in a line of unusual and recent events—getting lost driving to a friend’s home, dressing herself in mismatched clothing, misplacing and losing cash, forgetting everyday things. She was already scheduled to see a neurologist, but long waitlists made the appointment a bit far off. When I arrived at the hospital in Texas, I was not prepared for what I was going to hear. A CT scan revealed glioblastoma in an advanced stage, one of the most aggressive and deadliest types of primary brain tumors. I sobbed uncontrollably in the waiting room, unable to contain my sorrow in that moment. She was scheduled for surgery shortly after, but the prognosis for survival or quality of life post-surgery was grim. All we could do was surround her with love, care, and the assurance that we would walk with her through this diagnosis.

The surgery was as successful as it could have been, but behavioral changes due to impacted areas of the brain were quickly evident. Even so, she was happy to be alive, and we were hopeful that she would become strong enough for chemotherapy in the near future. Within two weeks, however, she developed shingles, and the outbreak kept her confined to her rehabilitation room. We were not prepared for the quick decline within that period of quarantine and isolation, as she went from walking with the assistance of a walker to needing the aid of a wheelchair. My siblings and I were still present with her daily, though through a regimen of safety procedures including the use of gloves, protective clothing, and sanitation. We watched her favorite TV shows, read the Bible and sang hymns together, and had pleasant conversations about our lives and her beloved grandchildren. We were still hopeful for recovery and more time with her, but within 6 weeks, the cognitive and behavioral changes were even more pronounced, and she entered a state of terminal restlessness, where she was intensely agitated, often scared, and filled with anguish. Her medical team provided comfort through gradual sedation, and we knew the end was near.

One hot Sunday afternoon in July, our dad, who was living in the same nursing facility due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease, became adamant that he wanted to see her. Due to his memory loss, cognitive decline, and agitation, I was a bit concerned that he wouldn’t understand why she would be lying there unresponsive, but his words and actions demonstrated he needed to see her. When we stepped into the room, to my utter shock, he was completely lucid. In that moment, he understood exactly what was happening. I was able to briefly explain the events of the past few weeks—the diagnosis, the surgery, the post-surgical illness, and her speedy decline—all of which he had been largely oblivious to prior to that moment. We both cried as he held her hand and stroked her arm in disbelief. He poured out his heart, professing his love for her and the sorrow he felt in our helplessness to save her. It was the most gut-wrenching yet beautiful moment I have ever witnessed. I firmly believe God granted him a moment of lucidity in order to say goodbye. My mom passed away the next morning, and he had no recollection of what transpired the night before.

Our Language is Everything!

Returning to Twitchell’s beautiful quote, what does all of this have to do with language? You see, all the events I just described occurred in our native language, Portuguese. When we immigrated to the US when I was 10, my mom was adamant that we maintain our Portuguese skills. She intuitively knew that if we (her children) lost our ability to speak Portuguese, we would have become like strangers in our own home. It took my parents years to learn and feel comfortable speaking English, and even though there was outside pressure for us to “switch to English” at home so that their English would progress faster, Portuguese remained our language of communication. It was a non-negotiable for my parents because that was our HEART language. That was the language my parents could fully express themselves in—their love, care, beliefs, values, fears, aspirations—everything that was important to them. In 30+ years of living in the US, our language of communication was always Portuguese. English interactions with them felt awkward and unnatural. Imagine that Sunday afternoon with my dad had I lost my ability to speak Portuguese? I wouldn’t have been able to capture that divine and beautiful moment or been a source of strength for my dad in his hour of grief.

Unanticipated Professional Rewards

Three months after my mom passed, I was invited to speak at the Brazilian stuttering association conference due to my work as a speech-language pathologist and advocate for the stuttering community. We were debuting a documentary film produced by a colleague entitled, WHEN I STUTTER, which provides educational vignettes about stuttering and details the lived experience of stuttering through the lens of multiple individuals who stutter. With the help of a Brazilian colleague, we translated the film into Brazilian Portuguese and launched its release in honor of International Stuttering Awareness Day (ISAD), which occurs every October. As I stood there in my homeland speaking before a large audience of Brazilians, I couldn’t help but think of my mom. I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe and gratitude for her foresight and care to pass down our language and culture. Because of her, my Brazilian heritage is of great value to me, and I have continued to enjoy the rewards of my Portuguese skills through other professional collaborations involving translation, research, and scholarly works.

Our Language is Everything!

What Alzheimer’s Didn’t Take Away

My dad’s Alzheimer’s continued to progress after my mom’s passing, and he became more and more disoriented, agitated, and disconnected. Conversations with him were surface level and repetitive interactions, but he still enjoyed being read to, listening to Portuguese music, singing, and recounting distant stories from his past. At one point it was evident that he either lost his ability to speak English, or at the very least, his desire to speak it. It seems that some language loss did occur because he often seemed confused when nursing staff spoke to him in English, and he even appeared scared at times when he didn’t know what was being said or asked of him. This sometimes led to “combative” behaviors and unpleasant interactions with English-speaking health care professionals, and his care became harder to manage. In those moments of confusion, agitation, and combativeness, the only thing that would pacify him was a familiar voice speaking a familiar language. We found amazing Brazilian caretakers that were willing to assist with his daily care in the nursing facility, and that improved his quality of life significantly. In the end of his life, the soothing balm, if you will, was Portuguese, and the ability to interact with his Brazilian caretakers, friends, and children. Because we (his children) maintained our home language—our heart language—we were able to actively help and meet his needs in his final season of life when he needed us most. My dad passed away on his birthday in December of 2020, but I am filled with gratitude for the time we had together on this earth.

Our Language is Everything!

Language truly is everything. It’s the blood that flows through our veins. I dedicate this writing to every parent who is passing down their language and culture to their children, particularly if your community language is more prestigious and different than your home language. Your journey is often hard and mundane, but your intentional and dedicated efforts will produce great rewards!

Ohle, K., & Bartels, J. T. (2016). Using dual-language books to preserve language & culture in Alaska native communities [Conference session]. Alaska Native Studies Conference 2016, University of Alaska.

How about you? How important is your target language to you and your family? Why?

16 Responses

  1. Ana Paula ! Que linda homenagem a sua família e a sua história ! Obrigada por compartilhar conosco !Beijos

  2. Que força impactante você passa com seu uso de palavras ao contar sua história que no mínimo desconcerta, alivia e encoraja todos bilíngues que por um momento pensaram em desistir de incentivar os filhos a aprender a língua falada pela família. Te admiro imensamente!

  3. Ana Paula’s message about bilingualism is a vital and important one for all of us professionals and non-professionals. Our language is so intimately tied with who we are culturally and beyond. It’s nice to have an advocate out there talking about it in both heartfelt and research driven ways.

  4. This is a beautiful message! Thank you for sharing. I love the idea of our heart languages and feel encouraged to keep ours strong.

  5. Muito brigada querida! This was lovely and outstanding summary of our journey with mama and papai…and a great testament to the valuing of language. I have long believed that the main focus of our profession in speech-language pathology should be this: helping people’s ability to communicate in order to help their quality of life. Community so important and communication is key. Deus abençoe voce! ???

  6. I’m so glad you sent this to me, parts of it brought tears to my eyes and parts of it made me smile. Well done you’ve been a blessing to all of your family. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write and express yourself for the world to see.

  7. Hi Ana Paula Mumy,
    Such a beautiful heart-touching piece you wrote.
    Your story deeply resonated. I,too, lost my 2nd parent (Dad) a few weeks ag. Despite being an English graduate, he also wanted all his latter interactions to be in his native tongue (panjabi). We were able to request panjabi-speaking caregivers for his End Of Life care at home. And because of his speaking to my 10 yr old son in panjabi, my son was able to bear witness and interact with Dad fully in those last months of his life. My father Manmohan Singh was a champion for panjabi language and literature, alongside his professional life. I truly believe that if our ancestral language is lost, our souls sense a deep loss and that it’s never too late to start embracing it, whatever generation we are from. You’ve inspired me to write about my experience too.

    1. Arvind, thank you so much for sharing your story! How wonderful that your son was able to interact with his grandfather in panjabi…I always say that language is about relationship and CONNECTION. Best to your family!

  8. Ana Paula,

    Thank you for sharing and re-sharing this deeply personal and heart-ful piece.

    You poignantly help us see the invaluable in the mother tongue. In Yiddish, it’s called mome-loshn

    You paint a vivid experience, with words. And the image of your father sitting at your mother’s bedside is at-once heart-breaking and also so full of love, life and spirit.

    While your experience makes a resounding case for the value of bilingualism later in life, I know you would agree on the importance of bilingualism in the early years of child development as well. Just as your father held on to his Portugeuse, his Portuguese held on to him – even through his dementia. So too, imagine the child growing up in the home and loving care of a parent who speaks a language different than the locale. Imagine the importance of the parent speaking in their mame-loshn (mother tongue.) My great linguistics professor, Dr. Helen Cairns at Queens College, CUNY inspired me to appreciate the cross-cultural, metalinguistic value of mother-ese. See more here

    A parent of a young child can transmit so much more to their young child when they speak their native tongue, the language of their heart. And it’s our job to encourage, support and nurture the process of bi-lingualism – knowing when, how, why to give people the gift of multi-lingualism… and at the same time, remembering the inherent preciousness and time and place to express the language of the heart, in the mame-loshn.

    1. Thank you, Uri! Yes, the ‘mame-loshn’ is invaluable at all stages of life and truly a gift. I love how you stated that Portuguese held on to my dad…yes, it did! Thank you for sharing Dr. Cairns’ article, will check it out. 😉

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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