Keeping the window open: why “heritage” languages are important too

I feel like I can not be half of myself.

I’ve heard variations of those words so many times over my career as a consultant, from adults all over the world, all referencing the fact that they do not speak the language of one (or both) of their parents. Many of them are children of immigrants who chose not to pass on their own “mother tongue”, because it wasn’t useful, because they were told not to, because they wanted their child to “fit in” to their new home, just… because. The adults expressing this sentiment to me come from all kinds of language backgrounds, but what they have in common is a sense of loss. For some it is a loss of potential:

“I could have been bilingual!”.

For some it is a loss of history:

“No one in our family can speak my grandmother’s language now.”.

And for some it is a loss of identity:

“When I go to my parents’ home country I am a foreigner.”.

No matter what the reasons, they all feel that they have missed out on, and are missing out on, something critical to their sense of self. As parents, we make the best choices we can for our children, and hope they were the right choices. In the case of heritage, or family, languages, it can seem too hard to keep using them with reluctant children, too much effort for no good reason. Many children go through phases (sometimes years long!) when they resist using the minority language, opting for the easier option, or the more acceptable option. Faced with resistance, even the most dedicated parents can lose their way and eventually shift to only the majority language as well.

So is it really worth it to keep using a language that your child doesn’t really need, may never use? From the voices of the now-adult children, yes, it is worth it. We can never predict where our children may want to go in their lives. Those of us raising children with complex cultural identities can not know what our children will eventually attach to, which side or facet of “self” they want to live with or live in. Choosing to not pass on a heritage language – a language that connects our children with their family, history, own story – eliminates a choice for them, and limits their ability to explore their sense of self from all angles.

So yes, it is worth it to keep using your language with your child, even when they refuse to speak it back to you. It is worth it to try and create a real or virtual community of practice so that your child can experience all of their cultural possibilities. It is worth it to do your best to keep the window open, so your child has the potential to grow up to be a speaker of that language if they choose, and to be a part of that culture.

If you are an adult who wants to speak your heritage language better, stay tuned for my next post.

If you are a parent who us trying to pass on a minority language, here are some previous posts that you may find helpful:

#IMLD: Whole-family support for (very minor) minority languages

Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

“But she won’t speak *my* language…”

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