Recovering heritage languages: rediscovering your “whole self”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about why “heritage” languages are important, which came out of conversations with families trying to pass on a language with little “usefulness” but great emotional significance. Some of the most emotional stories I’ve heard over the years have been from adults who should have been raised bilingual, but who are not bilingual. Sometimes their parents actively choose not to use a language; this is most common with low-status languages and dialects. Some parents tried but were given the advice to drop a “useless” language, and listened to that poor (but oh, so common) advice. Some parents tried and persevered but didn’t have enough of a support system, or had a child who was just too resistant, so they eventually let it go. Whatever the reason, the end results are the same: loss of a language and loss of a cultural connection.

This affects people in different ways, but I’ve heard from many that they feel uncomfortable traveling to their “home country” because people expect them to be able to speak the language. I’ve heard that they get mocked when they do try to use the language, because they “sound like children”. And I’ve heard that they just never go anywhere where that language will be used, because they feel too guilty about not being able to speak it.

Now, I am sure that there are many adults out there who lost a family language and have no regrets, but of course, those are not the people I hear from. But for those dealing with this issue, it can feel isolating to not be able to talk to extended family, it can feel shameful – to look like something that you are not – and it can feel insurmountable. So the question I am often faced with is: “How can I get back my mother tongue?”. The answer, of course, is you can’t. You can not start over again from birth and get it right the second time through. What you can do, if it matters to you, is start again from where you are now.

One of the biggest hurdles for trying to learn your “mother tongue” as an adult can be the people who are trying to be helpful. Your aunt, who likes to correct you every time you pronounce something incorrectly, your grandmother, who compares you to your cousins who are “so much better” than you, your cousin who switches to English with you out of politeness or impatience. Family members, while well-meaning, are sometimes not very effective as a language-learning support system.

So who can help you? One of the best resources is people who speak the language fluently, but have no emotional connection to how well you speak it. I’ve seen many adults benefit immensely from “language partnerships” – you have a mutually beneficial relationship where both have a language the other wants to improve, so you help each other. It’s not always easy to find a fluent speaker of your heritage language, but if you have a local college or university, the International Students Office is a good place to start. I’ve also seen success with families who bring in a child minder who speaks the heritage language, and the parent learns alongside the children (and even better – the other parent too!).

But of course the most successful method is to arrange for a full language-immersion. I’ve not seen many try with this method, because the logistics are sometimes overwhelming or impossible. But taking a “gap year” from whatever is your normal life and moving “back” to the land of your heritage language can be the best way to improve quickly and to discover, or rediscover a connection with your cultural identity.

Whichever route you choose, please do take the time to share your story with other families in the same situation. Letting parents know that someday their child may want to know their language might make the difference for someone else.

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3 thoughts on “Recovering heritage languages: rediscovering your “whole self”

  1. I find this so interesting as I have grappled with this with my children. We speak English at home as my polish husband speaks English fluently . He always found it difficult to speak to our children in polish as he never got into the habit when they were really little. We lived in Poland a short while so I’m hoping as they grow up it may come a little easier to them . It’s never too late and we have to sometimes ignore the mocking and persevere !

  2. As a teacher -librarian I see one of my main roles as educating parents of our primary school community in the importance of mother – tongue for identity and language development. Many have no idea about basic concepts like BICS and CALP and just how long it takes to be proficient in a language and also the importance of literature in developing and sustaining vocabulary and abstract thought. When you start talking to them I so often perceive relief that someone finally in the education sphere is affirming them and encouraging them. I also try to give them practical “how to” tips as well as some hard-to face facts about how just having dinner table conversations will not do the trick.

    • Excellent – I agree that there is a general lack of knowledge about the importance of mother tongue, and parents themselves often underestimate the value of their own language for their children, especially in immigrant families. Keep working!

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