Cha Ponea for NPR
My mother’s native language is Spanish. My fathers language is Persian. Mine? My mother says my first words were in her language. But that didn’t last long.
When I was in kindergarten, I would respond to anyone who spoke to me in Spanish, in English. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any relation to Persian since childhood – my father never spoke it at home, which he deeply regrets.
Over the years I’ve tried to learn more Spanish. I promise to only speak Spanish with my Puerto Rican family — but it doesn’t take long for someone to get frustrated and fall back on English. That’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed about you. And the cycle of shame continues.
I really want to be able to speak at least one of my native languages - and I know I’m not alone. It’s hard not to feel like a fake when I’m claiming an identity when I’m not able to fluently communicate in the language associated with that identity. When I try to fix the problem, my efforts are met with criticism and ridicule — often from the people I most want to connect with.
Now I face a brutal reality: In a generation, my multicultural, multilingual family will have lost both his native languages. It’s something that keeps me up at night – but the thought of preventing it is even scarier. Despite this, I am not giving up on my goal of being bilingual.
I’m trying to learn Spanish again.
It’s a lot to do, so I reached out to experts in native language learning and people who are also trying to learn their own native languages for help.
Give yourself some credit for what you know—it’s more than you think
The shame that many heritage language learners feel comes from a very real place, says Maria Carreira, co-founder of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. It doesn’t help when native speakers (often relatives) tease you – “That’s so cute how you say that!” – or say things like, “Oh, you don’t know that language.
But that’s not the only hurdle in learning. Carreira says native language learners, particularly in the United States, are being pushed back by people who think English is the only language that should be spoken, period. And so often older family members like myself downplay the importance of multilingualism and encourage assimilation to protect the younger generation from the prejudice and discrimination they have endured.
Many native language learners are taught that multilingualism is not a route to success, only to realize much later in life that it is in fact a significant asset. As adults, they must struggle to catch up and relearn what they once knew.
Even people who native language learners expect to support them the most – their language teachers – blame them for either not speaking well enough or too well to be in their classroom.
“The bottom line is that you can’t win by learning a native language,” says Carreira. Because of this, native language learners find it difficult to be proud of what we know, which is often much more than we think.
She says first things first, give yourself some credit!
Build on your strengths
The shame and fear experienced by native language learners is widespread. So is the burning desire to get better at that language, especially as we age and want to reconnect with our roots.
Carreira has spent years studying native language learning. She says one step in improving your language skills is to catalog your strengths.
Divide your language skills into four main categories:
- Speaking of
Write down what you do best in each of these categories. Because native language learners often have a foundation in their language, they differ from second language learners who start from scratch. In my case, I can understand a lot of Spanish, so my superpower is listening.
“Start with what you’re good at — listening — and then strategically move into reading about the same topic you just heard,” she says. From there you can start writing or speaking about the topic, depending on how comfortable you are with those skills.
For me, this advice was eye-opening. For years I’ve tried to improve my speaking, which is the skill I’m weakest at. I would just get frustrated and give up.
Carreira says that if you start with your strengths and build on them, you’re much less likely to quit.
Decide what you want to do with your language
Spend time thinking about what you want to do with your native language, says Carreira. The goal of proficiency in the native language is not practical, so take the pressure off yourself. She emphasizes that you are a traditional speaker, not a native speaker.
You can be an excellent heritage speaker if you are clear about what you want to use your language for:
- Would you like to be able to talk to your family instead of replying to them in English? That’s one of my goals. I would also like to use more Spanish when reporting.
- Would you like to give a presentation about your work and have professional/formal conversations?
- Would you like to read the newspaper, watch TV or sing along on the radio?
Knowing what you want to do with your language will help you prioritize what you need to learn. Otherwise, you will likely get overwhelmed and quit.
Find the tools that work for you
I took a Spanish course specifically for native language learners. The course is designed to address the specific needs of native language learners and to build confidence. There’s something very powerful about being around other students who have a strong connection to Spanish but still feel like they’re not good enough because of the expectations and pressures around them.
I learned more in two semesters than I have in the last twenty years with several (failed) attempts to improve my Spanish.
If in-person classes aren’t an option for you, there are plenty of online tools as well.
Jo Hyun and Dana Hooshmand run a website called Discover Discomfort where they explore different cultures and languages around the world and share what they have learned. Hyun is Korean-American and Hooshmand is Australian of Iranian descent.
“We realized along the way that we were starting to speak all these other languages and becoming exposed to other cultures a lot more than our own cultures of origin,” Hooshmand says, so they wanted to prioritize learning their languages of origin.
As Hyun and Hooshmand travel, they use online tools to learn their native languages. Hyun likes viki.com where she can watch Korean TV and movies. The site has a study mode where you can watch subtitles in English and Korean at the same time. Viki.com also has content from Vietnam, Thailand, China and Japan.
Both use italki.com to practice their conversation skills. On the site you can find a tutor in a variety of countries and arrange a one-on-one lesson to work on anything you need help with.
Hooshmand says he would get nervous before meeting his Persian teacher online because he feared they would be judgmental. “But then I start talking to them and they’re patient and kind and I realize I’m far from the first person to go through this, they’ve coached a lot of other native language learners.”
Hooshmand says he often leaves these tutoring sessions feeling like he has been able to connect with someone in Iran, his parents’ home country, since he cannot travel there himself.
Focus on the joy
Maria Carreira says ignore advertisements for language courses or apps that say you’ll be fluent in no time. They lie. Learning a language, even one in which you have a foundation, cannot be rushed.
To stay motivated, remember what you love most about learning your native language. For Hyun, it’s an opportunity to have conversations with her mother in Korean instead of English.
“I get this little release of dopamine and I’m really excited,” says Hyun. “And I make sure I have small doses of it throughout my practice.” She can also say it makes her mother happy.
I have found both joy and comfort in sharing my language learning journey on Twitter. So many people have come forward and said it has inspired them to improve their native language skills.
But the greatest joy for me is singing along to my favorite salsa song in the car with the windows down so everyone can hear me because I know all the words now.
That was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever done, but so far – ¡Vale la pena! (It’s worth it!)
Have you tried to learn your native language? What made you decide to start? What obstacles did you encounter? Any tips to share with other native language learners?
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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen with technical assistance from Daniel Shukhin. We’d love to hear from you. Voicemail us at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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