Being a Heritage Language Speaker


Being a heritage language speaker is a thing, especially in countries where there are/were a lot of immigrants. A heritage language speaker is a speaker that grows up learning a language that is not the dominant language of the country of residence. I am one of these speakers; I grew up speaking Japanese in the United States.
Because of this aspect of my background, I have noticed certain things about my life and the lives of other heritage language speakers, which I thought would be fun to write about since there are more of us than you think!! However, please know that if you are a heritage language speaker, all of these may not apply to you.

*Note: Most of what I’ll be talking about references my experiences in the U.S. though it may apply to other places. On another note, these are just things that I have noticed. Most importantly, being “fluent” or “fluency” in this post is a very loose term–it changes depending on the person. I don’t mean to offend anyone with this post!!

1. LANGUAGE SHAMING!!

Depending on the level of heritage language, sometimes I’ve heard of family members, immigrants, and speakers of that language “shaming” newer generations who aren’t as proficient in the language. It can be outright or really subtle, implied in a lot of different ways. Language is a big part of identity and depending on your thoughts, a sign of family and heritage, in which case to some people, not knowing the “family language” could be a disgrace.

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2. The Code-Switch Life

Code-switching is the use of two or more languages at once, and what can I say, sometimes there will be words in X language that we know but not in language Y and vice versa, or sometimes it’s just whatever comes out naturally. My mom always uses Japanese and English in her speech depending on who she’s talking to, and sometimes even my Japanese-born grandma does it. Heck, I even do it without realizing that I do it. It’s the badge of having two languages and cultures living in your brain and your soul.

3. Feeling Incompetent Because You’re Not “Fluent”

Going back to number 1, depending on the level of “fluency,” it may not only cause others to scold you for your language skills, but it could affect your own thoughts. Whenever I came across a Japanese kid where I lived, I would always be amazed at his speaking skills (despite now natural it is for Japanese kids to speak Japanese). And frequently I would just think “How is it that I can understand so much, but not be able to speak anything?!” It’s a frustrating ordeal, but real, because I’ve encountered other people who think the same thing.

4. But Feeling Awesome Because You Have a Leg Up

But at times you can feel really awesome despite not being able to speak a lot of the language. When I go to Japan, I like that I can at least understand and even read a few of the signs (and saves a lot of translating between me, my mom, and said Japanese-speaking person). The lexicon of heritage speakers can also be different from that of second language learners of the language, so you might know some concepts and cultural points that other people don’t, which can be really cool.

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5. Frustration: Filling in the Gaps

But the thing is, you know certain things and second language learners know other things. If you take a language class, it might be a really confusing situation. Even if I take Japanese classes, half of the things like listening and conjugation would be really easy but things like writing, speaking, and certain vocabulary words would be really difficult to memorize. Ultimately, I’m trying to say that there can be gaps of knowledge if you have a heritage language because you may not have learned how to write, you may know very specific vocabulary related to the home, etc., and it’s it can be frustrating.
However, there are classes specifically for heritage speakers depending on where you live. Apparently heritage language speakers learn differently from second language learners, so don’t feel bad about anything if you decide to take a normal class, just know that certain things will be easier and other things will be more difficult.

6. Your Life is a Cultural Mashup

Besides language, it’s possible that your life is a cultural mashup of culture: food, holidays, traditions. Certain foods like sea urchin, miso, and ramen are normal to me and the people that live in my house, but living in the States, to other people this is probably a rarity. I’m also familiar with some of the Japanese holidays and myth and folklore, just by my grandma’s commentary! I am American but I would say that I do not live a 100% American life.

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7. And Sometimes you Have Identity Crises

Culture comes from a lot of different places–culture can comes from language or not, food, family, being familiar with customs, etc. But to sum it up, identity in terms of culture can be a tangle-y situation; I am American born and speak English, but sometimes do not feel American because I have this added layer of culture (and blood running in my veins) from Japan, and on top of that I have my “adopted” Brazilian culture from knowing Portuguese, having traveled and lived there for a short amount of time, speaking with Brazilians, and just feeling a love of that culture. It’s complicated, and I have had mixed feelings about my identity. What am I?

8. But you Can’t Imagine it Any Other Way

But despite all the not so great AND great things that comes with being a heritage language speaker, I wouldn’t and can’t imagine it any other way. My life is my life because I AM this way, I was raised a certain way, and whether my Japanese improves or not, Japan will always be a part of me.

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Are you a heritage language speaker? Do you know anyone like this? Leave your comments below 🙂


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  1. Michelle

    It’s nice to see posts about heritage speakers. My mom is 1st generation Haitian and she speaks French rather fluently, and understands some Creole but doesn’t speak it. She never taught me French so I’ve taken on learning it myself. I like how you brought up the code switching – my mother and I do that all the time – and the point about identity. Because my mom is a mulatto Haitian and I’m mixed, it can be frustrating having people judge your identity based on your language (e.g. “Oh but if you’re Haitian why don’t you speak Creole?”), especially from people within that group. I feel worse for my mom because I know she feels that way with both her Creole and English. So thank you for the reassurance that even if the language situation is all wonky, that doesn’t have to affect one’s cultural identity negatively.

    Also your blog is super cute and interesting and once finals are over Imma binge read your posts.

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