My Family Has A Language Barrier


We have a language barrier in our house. Or we could call it a communication problem. It’s not new to me. I grew up in a household where there was a communication problem because of language, but I didn’t think it would extend to my adulthood.

Boris and Natasha, my two shyster cats, refuse to learn English so we can better cohabitate. I get tired of trying to decipher the tone of their meows. It is hit and miss. I think they’re tired of it too because as they get older, they’re stretching their vocal fold cords to new heights. I must not be getting their new commands right. In the early years, they were quieter, ignored us when we spoke to them, and yet we did what they wanted. Apparently, we were better trained ten years ago than we are now.

Early morning and late evening Boris sits by his bowl and glares at me. That means he wants to be fed. Natasha, on the other hand, gets my attention early morning by putting her paw on my face and waking me up so I will administer her a morning massage. We had our routines down. The minute there is a hole peeking through at the bottom of the food bowl, Boris demands vocally that we fill it. If they think we are going to forget, they open and then slam shut the cupboard door a few times to get our attention.

Lately, they have been directing us more often with their meows. We have a hard time figuring out the new things they want us to do. “There’s a mouse in the basement, let me down there.” We missed that one. The mouse is gone and the meows at the basement door has stopped.

“I want a treat, not my regular food.” as the meowing starts at another cupboard. And then of course, there is the… “You are sitting in my chair.” It took me a while to realize the meow at my head and the push at my back meant I needed to get up and let Boris or Natasha in the chair. The older they get the more demanding they are.

Boris saying, “I want my chair. Get up!“

I tried to teach Natasha to nod yes and no. After all, if my son could train his cat to use the toilet, I should be able to make my cats learn yes and no and to shake their heads. Natasha just blinked at me that she loved me, but she was adamant that nodding was beneath her.

I think of all the arguments we’re having about language these days. Recently, I saw a post that said if you’re going to live in America you needed to speak English. While I agree learning English may be a good idea, I thought of my grandmother.

My grandmother lived in America from the time she was 19 or 20. She never learned to speak English. I have no idea why. That’s what I mean when I say I am used to language barriers in my home. We lived with my grandmother. I never had a conversation with her that I could understand. For some reason, they never taught me Polish. I could understand a few words but that’s it. When my relatives would visit my dad and I would laugh because we couldn’t understand a word. I can’t say I was ever bothered by it because the one thing I did understand was that she loved me.

We are still having language barrier arguments all these years later. I wonder if some of what we are arguing about, only having people speak English, isn’t because of fear. I remember waiting on a couple of customers that spoke Spanish. They spoke English to me and then when talking to each other, spoke Spanish. I must admit I was a little fearful or paranoid because I had no idea if they were talking about me or making fun of me, or were planning something else. Media had put fear in my mind of a different culture. I no longer feel that way once I recognized it for what it was.

Different cultures view language different ways. Young people in other countries and now too here in our own, are learning to speak many different languages. I have friends whose children know how to speak Chinese because they went to language camps in the summer. Knowing each others languages breaks down barriers.

If you’ve ever had teenagers you know that may create a language barrier in your home. They speak teen-speak. The hard part is their language changes with each generation and now…it’s a language with letters and emojis. I can translate LOL but anything more my grandkids text me, I have to ask, “What does that mean?” I think I need to hit them with some shorthand or cursive, although my one grandson can read cursive.

I would like to think if we look someone in the eye and see them, really see them, the language barriers would fall away. If we take away the fear of insecurity of what we don’t know when they are speaking, maybe we wouldn’t be so judgmental.

As I grew up, I knew people who spoke Polish, German and a few other languages. They were the immigrants that were here during my generation. Not all spoke English. The argument was the same as it is now and so was the judgment. Guess what? We survived it and we integrated these people into our culture. I would not be here today, living in America if it were not for my Grandmother who never learned English. Yet in those days their culture was not accepted either.

My family kept their traditions alive by speaking their language and keeping close to the rituals of their heritage. Their roots were important to them. Perhaps it’s hard for those of us that were born in this country to understand that. It took me until my later years to get it as I sort through the things that were important from their native land. Though my mother was born in this country, her roots and heritage mattered to her. She never forgot where she came from and she never neglected to try and teach me their traditions. Sadly, I never realized the importance of keeping another culture’s heritage alive in family until she was gone

I find it exciting to learn about different cultures. The next time you eat Lasagna or Chinese food or take part in a tradition of another country, enjoy it’s richness. I am learning more about my Polish heritage and I am proud of it.

I think Boris and Natasha are proud of theirs too. I am sure Natasha is meowing Siamese and Boris is meowing Alleycat, and both are going to be stubborn and hold tight on keeping their language skills to meowing in their language. How lucky are we that our love for one another transcends those language barriers so we can bask in the purrs and blinks they give us on a daily basis.

Traditions, roots and culture remain important no matter what nationality we are, especially if it connects us to another country rich with history of our ancestors. It doesn’t make us less of an American to embrace our lineage.

Barriers can be created by closed minds and hearts. I am lucky love always won with my grandmother and my shysters. My life is richer because of it.

Immigration, has it changed since the 1900’s?

Sprinkled Notes published in the Albert Lea Tribune and the Courier Sentinel the week of September 17, 2018

by Julie Seedorf © September 2018

Alex Haley stated, “When you start about family and lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.” Alex Haley was an American writer and the author of the 1976 book “Roots.”

Recent events in the news in southern Minnesota have caused me to ponder my ancestry.

My Grandma Julia immigrated to America in the late 1800s. She came from Poland when she was 18 or 19 years old. She did not have a job lined up for her — at least that I know of —  and entered the United States through Ellis Island.

How she made it to Minnesota and to later meet my Polish grandfather, I do not know. I do know he was quite a bit older than she. They settled on a small farm on what was then the edge of Wells. She raised six children. My Grandmother Julia never spoke a word of English. I do not know why Grandma Julia did not learn the English language.

My grandfather died in 1934. In 1934 my mother was 26 years old. She had two older brothers and three younger brothers. My non-English speaking grandmother was left alone in a country where she couldn’t speak their language. Her children had to help support her.

It wasn’t popular to be a polish immigrant back in the early 1900s. They had to form their own communities because they were not well accepted and they were called some not-so-nice names.

My mom, dad and I lived with my grandmother until I was in sixth grade. I never questioned it. It was just my normal life. And I didn’t question the fact that I couldn’t understand a word my grandmother spoke. I never knew what my mom and uncles were saying to my grandmother. And no one offered to teach me the language, and I didn’t pick up much of what they were saying except by their facial expressions. All of my uncles and my mom spoke English fluently because they grew up here but they also knew their native language. My dad also lived in that household and never knew a word of Polish.

When my Polish-speaking family met other Polish-speaking people, they reverted to the Polish language when speaking. Because I was used to it, it never bothered me. I actually never thought much about it at all until I got older.

One day in my middle adult years as I was working as an office manager, some non-English speaking people came in for help. Only one could speak English — at least that is what I guessed since they were the one doing the speaking, and then would translate to the others. I felt uncomfortable. The reason I felt uncomfortable was that I wasn’t sure if they were talking about me or making fun of the advice I gave. There was no reason to think that, but it was my own insecurity making those feelings comes to pass. And part of me felt fear because I was treading in an unknown situation.

I remember back in the ’60s visiting my family in California. When we were out and about there were many people living there that were not speaking English. They were all around us. My family wasn’t concerned and took it to be their normal.

Residents of many other countries learn many different languages, and they are fluent in more than one. How many of us can claim that? When many of us Americans are tourists and visit other countries many times we do not speak their language so it should come as no surprise that tourists from other countries can’t speak ours. However, many do.

After I thought about my family and read about the comments being made because of an incident with a southern Minnesota police officer — and I am in no way defending or commenting on his actions right or wrong — I concluded as much as our country has progressed in many things we are still experiencing the same things my family was experiencing back in the early 1900s when it comes to immigrants.

My immigrant Polish grandmother that could never speak English raised six children who went on to become carpenters owning their own construction businesses, including working for movie stars and building government projects, a school teacher and business owner, an owner of a locksmith business, a McDonnell Douglas employee building aircrafts and a farmer. From those offspring came two doctors, an accountant being a partner in one of the largest accounting firms in the country and more. Not too bad for the roots coming from a non-English speaking Polish Immigrant.

My point is that in the early 1900s people did not accept those Polish immigrants because they were different from what was perceived as being right in America. I felt comfortable with my non-English speaking family because their language was normal for me. I felt uncomfortable in my adult years by people who spoke a different language that I did not understand, which was outside my normal world, but those people, too, were immigrants. It was my fear of the unknown that was making me uncomfortable.

My grandmother became naturalized at some point but not until later in her life, and she still raised honest, hard-working, good citizens in her children even if she was not a citizen. The process to become an American citizen was much different back then.

I don’t know what the answer is. I only know I would not be here if it were not for my immigrant non-English speaking grandmother and grandfather. So why are we afraid? I’m not sure. Are you?