Unearthing Your Languages
How can someone write in a language they don’t understand but that lives in their bones? How do playwrights who are heritage language learners (HLLs)—people historically or personally connected to ancestral languages who may not necessarily understand those languages—write their plays or portions of their plays in their heritage languages? In the writing process, how are these playwrights (re)learning and (re)claiming the words, grammar, and meanings of their ancestors while also creating theatre? And how do these artists give themselves space to grieve, celebrate, and feel all other emotions that come from learning a language that lives within their lineage?
I have a bit of an idea. As a playwright myself, I took on the task of learning Romanian, my father’s native language, for my play Lena Passes By. In the process, I dove into vocabulary, reading, grammar, fluency, and cultural context to aid in the recovery of this lost language of mine. I created a methodology for dealing with translations, identified unique issues of HLLs who are also writers, and reflected and meditated on the pain of being separated from language.
Lesson 1: Finding Native Speakers
AMANDA: Hi Papa, I’m writing a new play… could you translate some things into Romanian for me?
PAPA: Sure. (reads English text) What is this for, exactly?
AMANDA: Oh… just an assignment.
— Conversation between the author and her father, January 2018
One winter day in 2017, a few months after an exhausting move from Virginia to California, I uncovered letters from my mother during her time as a press attaché in communist Romania during the 1970s. As I read about her pain and isolation as a young Filipina woman in a foreign country and the psychological and political abuses she faced from the Romanian government—and, worse, her future father-in-law—I became overwhelmed. Reminded of my own experiences visiting Romania in my early twenties (the same age my mother was when she lived there), I furiously wrote the first draft of Lena Passes By, pouring my family’s emotion and my knowledge of Romanian history, folklore, and belief into the titular character, Lena. A superpowered young woman, a Buffy-esque Filipina Romanian American, she was not there to slay vampires and close the Hellmouth, but rather learn about her family’s demons and open up graves so the dead could speak.
But what happens when the dead speak a different language?
There were parts of this play that needed to be in Romanian. I first wrote them in English and then turned to Google Translate, but I knew the website was better for general translations or checking smaller chunks of text—not so much for translating conversations. I would need a better grasp of the language if I were going to write in it.
Could I go to Romania for some intensive courses, like I had gone to the Philippines as an undergraduate and studied Tagalog for four months? No—with my budget and small children, a long overseas trip to Romania wasn’t happening any time soon. Could I get a native Romanian speaker to translate for me? Yes—but I was concerned about asking family members and their close friends about our past. I know what my dad would say if I started asking him about our stories: “I just want to take those memories to my grave.”
In the first round of the script, I ended up giving my dad the excerpts and using his translations in the play. The family-member-as-translator solution would work in a pinch (and, admittedly, was a trickster move). Seeing only excerpts, my dad didn’t ask too many questions about why I was digging up the past. But the more I kept getting to know my heritage language, I wondered, how could I keep writing and translating in Romanian long-term—for this play and beyond?
How can someone write in a language they don’t understand but that lives in their bones?
Lesson 2: Virtual and In-Person Learning
TEACHER: Say â!
TEACHER: No, â!
TEACHER: No! Like you’re holding a pen between your teeth! Îââââ!
— Lecture during UCLA Romanian language class, June 2019
What resources are available for HLLs who want to learn their heritage language(s)? I started with Duolingo, which helped me greatly with vocabulary and listening, but not so much with understanding grammar and conversing. Craving immersion but not in a position to leave the country, I searched for Romanian language classes in Los Angeles and discovered that UCLA had a six-week summer intensive. I also considered online language learning platforms where language learners can pay a small fee to chat one-on-one with language teachers—one friend recommended italki. And I listened to Romanian music on YouTube and Spotify on repeat.
In my experience, resources for heritage language learning are on a spectrum of virtual to in-person. Depending on where you are, typically the most affordable and accessible ones are virtual, but those don’t necessarily teach you the grammar and rules underlying the language. The most intense option would be to immerse yourself among native speakers, but this is not always practical or feasible. And somewhere in-between lies college or language institute courses. I recognize that it was a privilege for me to learn Romanian at a university summer school in Los Angeles—in my home state of Virginia, I had no such options. And of course, this varies by language popularity and number of speakers—it’s easier to find Spanish language options compared to many Indigenous languages. If a university teaches a heritage language, a learner might want to contact the professor about options for the course and whether it’s possible to enroll or audit.
Summer school exhausted me in the best way. Five hours a day for five weeks, not including homework time, I practiced speaking, reading, listening, and writing with my teacher and classmates. I was one of two graduate students (the other was an archaeologist doing fieldwork near the Black Sea) amidst undergraduates, most of them enrolled so they could meet their language requirement course. I was the only HLL.
The first week, I discovered that my speaking, reading, and listening skills were above average compared to the class, which I credit to the bits and pieces I heard from my father growing up. Writing was much harder. My brain turned over and over as I mentally broke up English syntax, morphed English words into Romanian ones, and tried to piece them together into coherent messages. I didn’t rewrite a single word of my play during this time. But, looking at it later, I found parallels between my own language learning and what I had written for the character. Although Lena learns the language in magical warp speed, she has to let go of thinking too hard about it. She has to sing the language—she has to let it out in pure feeling.
Halfway through the course, a deep sadness began to well up in my chest. This was my father’s first language, his mother tongue, a language he had given up so that he could be more American, a language he had refrained from speaking because of a culture of fear and paranoia brought on by political and historical circumstances beyond his native country’s control. If I could know this language, would he have spoken to me more about his past? If I could know this language, could I read the letters and diaries my parents smuggled into the States with them when they fled Romania? If I could know this language, could I write poetry and plays and essays, expressing myself beyond English, connecting more deeply with my ancestors? My heritage?
The deep sadness was joined by guilt and longing. The more I learned, the more I hurt, the more I surrendered myself to pure, ineffable feeling.
If I could know this language, could I write poetry and plays and essays, expressing myself beyond English, connecting more deeply with my ancestors? My heritage?
Lesson 3: Readings and Rehearsals
TÂNDALĂ: Lena Bala! Văra noastra din America! [[Our cousin from America!]]
LENA: Oh, uh, bună. Nu vorbesc româneşte. [[Oh, uh, hi. I don’t speak Romanian.]]
PÂCALĂ: Tocmai ai vorbit. [[But you’re speaking it right now.]]
LENA: All I know how to say is “Hi, I don’t speak Romanian.” And sictir.
Păcală and Tândală laugh.
— Excerpt from Lena Passes By
It took me two years to approach rewriting the original draft of Lena Passes By. At this point, I had done what some folks might call research and what I call deep ancestral work: learning as much as I could of the language through classes and online programs, yes, but also immersing myself in literature, folklore, songs, family archives, dreams. Maybe I wasn’t fluent—maybe I’d never be fluent—but I was ready to bring new information and perspectives to this play.
When I was in summer school, I would recite my homework over the phone to my father and he would correct it—but then my teacher would mark it up with her red pen. Was the same true for the Romanian-spoken portion of my play?
In the meantime, I was building community within the LA theatre scene, and I connected with Artists at Play, a company that explores the Asian American experience. In January 2020, we set up an in-house reading of my play. In preparation for the reading, they asked if it would be possible to get pronunciation assistance.
Here’s where there’s a bit of providence involved in my story. One of our Romanian family friends is an actress. I emailed my father’s translations to her, and she offered to record herself with another Romanian actress reciting the lines. In the process, we discovered that the original translations that my father provided “sounded funny”—they were understandable, but the grammar sounded wrong, or certain words were, as the actress said, “Something my grandmother would say.” I later realized that my father, having been away from his native land for so long, had developed his own idiosyncratic dialect—a learner’s language that is unique to them, with grammar particular to only that individual. Generally, idiosyncratic dialects include four categories: the language of poems, aphasic speech, an infant learning their mother tongue, and second language learners, but my father’s case was different. His dialect became idiosyncratic because of language attrition—the process of losing one’s native language. While we corrected obvious grammatical errors, I decided to keep notes on outdated vocabulary in the play—a reflection of how my father’s language had changed as he Americanized and left its imprint on me.
Artists at Play found a native speaker actor to read, and he helped immensely in assisting the other actors with pronunciation, grammar, and cultural context. My play had a public reading at the Pasadena Playhouse in May 2020, just as the theatre world was acclimating to Zoom as a platform. The same actor was joined by another native speaker actress, and the two of them coached the rest of the cast on pronunciation and context. Additionally, the actress offered alternative translations for a Romanian folksong performed in English so that we could capture more of the poetry and emotion for English listeners. And despite the newness and (let’s admit it) awkwardness of Zoom theatre, my play reached a height I never thought possible: my Romanian family around the world was able to watch it in real time.
I felt humbled by the actors’ knowledge and care in preserving the meaning to a language that was native to them, heritage to me. Having native speakers on the team took not only the script to the next level, but the entire performance. They were able to inhabit the entire play, which allowed them to inhabit the characters and suggest terms that someone of that character’s social, gender, and geographic status would say. And when they sang… I felt that pure feeling rising up again. Their translation process and coaching allowed me to surrender control over the text. While I couldn’t write in Romanian myself and relied on translations from my English text to Romanian, I had actors and collaborators from LA to Bucharest helping me tell this story. This is why a language needs many speakers. This is why theatre needs many people.
I had actors and collaborators from LA to Bucharest helping me tell this story. This is why a language needs many speakers. This is why theatre needs many people.
I’ve heard it said that to have a second language is to have a second soul. But to “have” a language also means to speak, to listen, to read, to write, to dream. Tens of thousands of everyday details and large events that add up to lifetimes. As a playwright, I know there are many tools and collaborators for reclaiming my languages: going to native speakers (usually family) for translation, using digital tools such as Google Translate and DuoLingo, working with native speaking professional actors. I’m curious as to how other heritage language learner playwrights write their plays. What methods and processes might be different depending on your languages, locations, and accessibility? For HLL actors, dramaturgs, translators, and directors, how do you bring your own ancestral languages, coaching, and resources to the process of a multilingual play?
And if you are pained while writing or translating, I hope you can find comfort in their process. In my journey, I had to learn that languages can atrophy. They can be worn away by time, movement, and the struggle to survive. They may turn deeply personal, a solo language understood only by one. I may never fluently “have” Romanian or any of my other ancestral languages, but I know they live in my lineages. Through my plays, they ask to be unearthed. How do I make peace with this? How do I grieve, celebrate, and feel beyond what words can convey? And how do I find solace in the knowledge that as I learn a language, the language is learning me?
My answer for learning Romanian came in the form of the folk ballad “The Pilgrimage of the Soul After Death.” The poem is a set of instructions for a soul divided from its body on how to journey across a nameless sea to reach “the other world.” My language, divided from my tongue, traveled a long way to where I am in the world now. The poem tells me—tells the listener—eventually, you come to a delightful field of flowers. You pick them. And as you pick them, the longing for the world will vanish. Peace and solace come in the act of making the journey, crossing the obstacles, and, finally, taking delight in what you have accomplished.