Dean Atta: Two Tongues are Better Than One

Dean Atta has recently gone viral online with his poem “I am Nobody’s Nigger” which was written and recorded in the light of the convictions of two of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers and is a tremendous response to the attempted appropriation of the offensive word in certain areas of today’s black youth culture. He wrote a poem about language and immigration from his own personal experience. We thought you might like to hear it, Dean is soemone we’d like to promte and gain a wider audience for. Migrant voices (even second generation ones) are what makes the UK such an amazing place to live in. As always with our guest bloggers, the views below are those of the author.

Although I think it important for people coming into the country to learn English, I think it is of equal, if not greater, importance that their children also retain their first language and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. I am a third generation immigrant whose grandparents came to London in the 60s from Jamaica and Cyprus. My Jamaican grandmother has remained in London but my Cypriot grandparents moved back to Cyprus a few years ago. My sister and I grew up with our grandparents as a big part of our lives; we would see them at least once a week and would delight at my grandmother’s Greek-Cypriot cooking.

Unfortunately, our grandparents would always speak to us in English rather than in Greek and our mother would never speak Greek to us at home either. It always troubled me that we were not taught the language our grandparents spoke and our mother understood, but refused to speak. Now when we go to visit our grandparents back in Cyprus we struggle to keep up with conversations and find it almost impossible to speak to many other older relatives without someone to translate for us. Even with younger family members who speak English our sense of otherness is highlighted by our inability to speak Greek.

I have always felt at a loss by not speaking my ‘mother tongue’ and I wrote this poem about it. The nature of the UK means that we have collected peoples from all over the world, whether through the commonwealth or through asylum or economic migration. For the sake of international relations, I feel that British-raised children of immigrants should be actively encouraged to maintain their ‘mother tongue’ in addition to mastering the English language, so that they feel part of a world greater than just Britain.

Mother Tongue – Missing Piece EP by Dean Atta

Mother Tongue by Dean Atta

Our mother has swallowed her tongue
Though selfish is never a word I could call mum
I feel she has been so by swallowing her tongue
To make it worse, our family holidays are always to her motherland
She forgets to translate even though she knows we don’t understand
My sister and I, make do and get by on the meaning we can infer
From gestures and inflection, can never look to mum for direction
Mother has swallowed her tongue, shows no regrets on reflection
Stubborn, she refuses to see that she has wronged us not to teach
To give us the option, the basic right, of freedom of speech
With our grandparents, our aunts, uncles and our cousins
There are few shortcuts to understanding
Common language is a good paving stone
So when you can’t speak the language of love
You realise you may be walking this path alone
Made in England, we’re half this and half that
But they could more easily overlook that fact
If we could speak with our mother’s tongue
Not let our skin speak for us
But join in the family chorus
I can’t tell you why she would wilfully deny
Her daughter and her son
But she has swallowed it
And we are struck dumb
Our mother has swallowed her tongue.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

One response to “Dean Atta: Two Tongues are Better Than One

  • kk

    Beautiful poem and article. Being a second generation Indian i understand where this is coming from. My parents could not speak much English when they came from India in late 1950’s, in fact hardly any at all and spoke mainly in Gujarati. This helped my elder sister and myself immensely everytime we visited family back home. Nowadays I have noticed that the people who came later in the 80’s and 90’s have become too westernised and have not taught their children their mother tongue, when they go back to visit they think that this is clever and interpret for them. Little do they realise that they are being taken the mickey out of. When I or now my children go to India and speak in Gujarati, we get shocked looks and lovely comments on how we have kept alive the culture in the UK.

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