Last summer, soon after countries around the world announced their first lockdowns and millions were forced into self-quarantine, multiple language learning programs, including the popular website and app Duolingo, announced traffic spikes at all-time highs. The renewed interest in language inspired the question: how many people— driven by the urgency to connect with loved ones out of reach—are using the quarantine to learn their native or cultural tongues?
A Tale of Two Tongues:
Eva Schulteis, a 28-year-old based in California’s Bay Area, has been brushing up on her Mandarin primarily to keep in touch with her 77-year-old grandmother, who she calls Popo, through WeChat. Though her grandmother normally splits her time between the United States and China, she’s been stuck abroad and alone since November 2019. A fall kept her from her flight back to the States, and the pandemic further delayed a return.
Schulteis, who is half-Chinese and half-white, grew up in Wisconsin learning Mandarin as her first language, thanks to her grandmother. But when her Popo began taking nannying jobs and spending less time around the house, the language at home defaulted to English and Schulteis lost much of her native tongue.
Relearning the language never really crossed her mind until, one day, at age 24, she was trying to explain to her grandmother’s visiting nurse why Popo didn’t have sufficient medications for her Type 2 diabetes.
“In Chinese,” Schulteis has since learned, “there are two different words for being sick and having an illness.” The way her grandmother’s conditions were initially translated, her Popo believed she just had a sickness. “So she thought, I get a bottle of Metformin, finish it and I’ve nailed diabetes.”
For the next four years after the incident with her Popo’s nurse, Schulteis dabbled in relearning Mandarin.
Then the pandemic hit, her Popo was stuck in China, and she had no idea when their family would see her again. There were public health rules in place keeping flights on hold, not to mention growing political bitterness between the U.S. and China. To stay connected with her Popo, Schulteis would need to learn to communicate in Chinese through WeChat.
She began hunkering down on teaching herself Mandarin, and turned to an unexpected resource– cookbooks. Schulteis and her mother, who still lives in Wisconsin, often flip through their copies of Fu Pei-Mei’s Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book, discussing the recipes together solely in Chinese. When their delicacies are all ready, they share their creations with Popo over WeChat.
“Most of the time, Popo just likes to give me some hot takes and unsolicited suggestions, like my knife work needs work,” said Schulteis. But she can tell her grandmother is impressed.
Cooking in Chinese has also encouraged Schulteis’ mother to open up about their family’s past in ways she’s never done before. Though her mother is fluent in English, Schulteis can see she’s more comfortable expressing herself in Mandarin.
While preparing one particular dish—a fish-fragrant shredded pork dish called yu xiang rou si—Schulteis learned it was actually her grandfather’s favorite. She never had a chance to meet him, but by preparing yu xiang rou si, Schulteis learned more about his life as a secret photographer in China, and about his departure from Nanjing during the Japanese Occupation.
“As far as fluency,” Schulteis jokes, “well, I can really work my way through a Chinese restaurant.”
Investigating Across Languages:
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 24-year-old reporter and translator Kiran Misra has been busy relearning Hindi, not only to reconnect with her family’s Indian roots, but to also help debunk misinformation in the South Asian community.
“When the pandemic started, I realized that a lot of immigrant communities across America were really confused about what was happening,” said Misra. “We were getting completely false information from WhatsApp.”
While reporting within Chicago’s South Asian neighborhoods, Misra learned these communities were being disproportionately affected by the pandemic, yet they were frequently left out of various stimulus packages. She decided it would be beneficial to brush up on her language skills after years of neglect.
“When I go to these communities, I know people do speak English. But if you can speak Hindi or Punjabi, it just puts people more at ease,” said Misra. “You get a fuller picture, people understand your questions better. And as a journalist, I think it’s really helped me produce better reporting.”
To re-learn the language, Misra used old textbooks from the time she spent in India on a language fellowship. While it was helpful, Misra said she preferred polishing her skills by reading the entire Harry Potter series in Hindi. Misra’s hard work paid off and she was eventually able to translate multiple coronavirus notices in both Hindi and Punjabi.
Unwritten but Not Yet Forgotten:
Rabia Mushtaq, 31, like Schulteis and Misra, also turned to relearning her native language during the pandemic. But for her, the return to her cultural roots was driven by an urgency to preserve a disappearing tongue.
Mushtaq is currently based in Karachi, Pakistan and her native language is called Kutchi, which is an Indo-Aryan language, created by the Memons. Kutchi is primarily spoken in the largest district of Indian’s westernmost state, Gujarat, and it is estimated that only about 885,000 people in the world speak the language.
Mustaq explains that Kutchi is unwritten and can only be learned and communicated orally. In Pakistan, many older Memons will write Kutchi in the dominant language script of Urdu, but it is increasingly rare to find the language at all among younger generations.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” says Mushtaq. “If we’re not going to preserve the language, who is going to do it for us?”
As a kid, Mushtaq and her other Catholic school classmates were pushed by their parents and teachers to speak and perfect the English language. She recalls being reprimanded for speaking anything but English during school hours, a practice she now recognizes as remnants of colonialism.
When her paternal grandmother died, Mushtaq realized she was losing the language that her elders spoke. Her step-maternal grandmother is now one of the only people in her family from the Kutchi-speaking generation.
“Everybody has this fear of losing someone right now, you know?” said Mushtaq. But losing her elders also means losing family history—history that hasn’t yet been documented. “I just know this is something I need to document or write about, and Kutchi as a language has a very crucial role to play in that.”
People all over the world seem to be yearning to perfect or learn familiar and new languages during the pandemic, but the reasons aren’t as simple as having free time or learning something new because they’re bored. For many, especially those reconnecting with their native tongues, the practice has offered newfound purpose.
Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and founder of the award-winning newsletter, Foreign Bodies.