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The Language of Secrets by Judith O’Loughlin

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

For many years I had never really thought about not being bilingual. I had been raised by two first generation immigrant parents. My dad was a Russia-German Ashkenazi Jew and my mom was a Sephardic Jew, whose parents emigrated from Turkey. Although my dad’s first and only language was English, with a smattering of his Brooklyn neighborhood Yiddish, my mom was fluent in Ladino (Spanish spoken by Jews originally from Spain who escaped during the inquisition). My maternal grandparents raised six children, including my mom in the Lower East Side neighborhood in NYC where many Jews, especially many Sephardic settled. All six children spoke Spanish (really Ladino) as a first language, learning to read and write English to varying degrees of proficiency in the New York City schools, with no ESL program assistance. My grandmother never learned to read and write in any language.

My sister and I went to my grandmother’s railroad apartment on Houston Street after school most days. At first these daily treks from my P.S. 4 elementary school were made by me walking alone and, little sister, my mother, grandmother, and my aunt Esther, my mom’s older sister, were at the apartment waiting for me. There was always a flurry of activity when I got there. Spanish (Ladino) words and phrases flew in fervently fast and loud utterances, punctuated by hand gestures and often frantic movement. It was overwhelming. At first, I could never tell if they were arguing or expressing joy. Little by little, through watching them. I could determine the mood of the moment but not the content. “Ah, everyone is happy. They are laughing and getting ready to share a glass of hot tea.” Or, “oh, no someone has done some unspeakable act and they are all angry, red faces, wild hand gestures, slamming hands on tables. Where do I hide, how do I become invisible, what do I do?”

Upon my daily arrival, after the initial assessment of the moment and “taking the temperature” of the room, the rest of each afternoon was pure bliss. My grandma, who all the grandchildren called “Nuna”, filled us with all kinds of Turkish delights, from pretzel-shaped homemade shortbread cookies covered in sesame seeds, to newspaper cones of steaming chick peas recently cooked in olive oil, salt and pepper, to dates stuffed with almonds. Snack time was often accompanied by an activity, with the purpose of helping Nuna prepare a meal, peeling carrots, shelling walnuts for her famous matzoh pies for Passover, or whatever Nuna decided I needed to do at that moment. No idle hands, no sitting around. But lots of moments to talk, laugh, and hug.

These memories were buried in my mind for many years after we moved to our “forever home” in New Jersey and settled into a very different suburban American lifestyle, devoid of my early childhood ethnicity. High school and university followed uneventfully. I became a typical suburban teen and young adult. Before and after marriage I taught English for 8+ years in a suburban junior high school with no evidence of a single English learner in sight. But all this soon changed.

After the birth of my two daughters I found myself without a teaching position. A serendipitous chance meeting with another mom in our town library took me to the Hackensack Evening School for the Foreign Born. Soon I had a job teaching English at night to adults from all over the world. I listened to their “arrival stories,” including three young men having jumped into the sea to escape persecution, and their struggles adapting to a new culture and learning a new language, living in two worlds. I began remembering and reflecting on my childhood with Nuna and that’s when “the language of secrets” hit me full force.

As a child I had been living in two worlds and really never thought about it. I transitioned from P.S. 4 as a native English speaker into my Family’s Turkish Ladino culture complete with foods, gestures, conversations, and values I was living but had no access to the language. I was filled with so many mixed emotions. I began to understand the families I worked with and how they struggled to balance both worlds. Becoming bilingual was their goal so that they could survive and thrive in the country. I struggled with language loss on my part for a language I would never acquire nor learn. I felt so incredibly sad that this part of Nuna’s life I would never fully understand, nor pass onto my children. I understood that my Nuna wanted all her grandchildren to succeed and not be hampered by another language, a thought that permeated the assimilation movement in immigration, blend into a one soup, not acculturate into a salad maintaining your uniqueness while being a part of both languages. Although her efforts produced doctors, teachers, family counselors, and numerous other successful professionals, as her grandchildren, we had lost a piece of our heritage, our unique culture we could never really own.

As I look back and look forward, I think strangely that the language of secrets made me who I am today. I am an advocate for bilingualism and The Seal of Biliteracy, write about, speak about immigration and refugees to teachers and legislators, and I work every day at finding ways to help all second language learners. Perhaps, my Nuna knew that I had a fire in me to help others keep and maintain their bilingualism, although I would never be bilingual.

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