Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?


To learn any language takes an awful lot of motivation. So if the child of an immigrant is very motivated to learn the language of origin, or heritage language as it is often described, because he or she wants to talk to family members, that’s great. However, if they’re not motivated to do so then they should just be left alone.

I don’t think there’s any particular value in having someone learn the language of their ancestors rather than some other language.

My Language History

My parents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were German-speaking in a Jewish community in Moravia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least Moravia, became Czechoslovakia.

They spoke mostly German, but at some point they started going to Czech schools once Czechoslovakia was formed, so they spoke both of those languages, but German was more natural for them.

They left in ’39 before Hitler came in and went to Sweden, which is where I was born. I spoke Swedish for the first five years of my life from 1945 to 1950, then we immigrated to Canada and my parents decided that we were going to speak English.

I always spoke English with my parents and I never had any sense that my communication with them was in any way inhibited. There was no pressure to learn German or Czech.

If anything, my parents wanted me to learn French, which we studied at school without any great success. They were quite happy that we spoke English because we lived in Canada.

Placing Blame

1I once spoke with someone who was mad at his father for not forcing him to speak Dutch, his heritage language, as a child. Well, learn it now then I say. How can you blame your parents? In reality, back in those days he probably wasn’t very interested.

In my own case, I might say I wish my mother had insisted that I continue taking piano lessons. I didn’t want to do it and so, eventually, after fighting day after day around the piano she let me quit.

There’s no point in hindsight now to say that I wish she had forced me to carry on. It was just too much effort because I didn’t want to do it. I had developed my own interests.

Insofar as languages are concerned, the first language besides English that I learned to speak well was French, followed by Chinese and Japanese and then Spanish and German. It had nothing to do with whatever might be considered the language of my ancestors.

My wife, who was born in Macau and whose mother is Costa Rican, spoke Cantonese best as a child, but the language of her mother was Spanish. So now, in terms of our kids, which ancestral language should we have forced them to learn? As it was we couldn’t even get them to learn French, which I tried very hard to do. The more we tried, the more they resisted.

It wasn’t until my son Mark had the opportunity to live in different foreign countries as a professional hockey player that he became interested in learning languages.

Interest is Key

I think language learning is something you do if you’re interested.

If the parents can create an environment where the children are genuinely interested in learning the language, 
then they might be able to pull it off. In many cases they won’t and, in some cases, they might actually turn the kid off learning that language.

To me, the culture is not in the DNA. We have immigrants here in Canada from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico. Those people are also mixed, so is the heritage language Spanish? Is it Arabic if they’re of Lebanese origin?

I know Lebanese-origin Mexicans, Jewish Mexicans and Japanese Brazilians. What’s the heritage language? How many generations are you going to go back? The reality is that, in all probability, within a few generations in Canada all those people will intermarry and only speak English. By the third generation, two-thirds of the people have spouses who are not of the same ethnic group, so English simply takes over.

People get very moralistic about this. It’s just so obviously a good thing to learn the heritage language. It’s part of your heritage. It’s diversity and blah, blah, blah. If people do it, that’s fine, nothing wrong with it, but if they don’t like doing it that’s equally fine. Let people learn the languages that they’re interested in.


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6 comments on “Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?

Agree with you completely there! People should be learning what they are interested in!
However… I think this kind of issue gets treated often not as “you have to learn your heritage language”, but rather “you will eventually regret if you don’t learn it”, similar to how people talk about tattoos for example (“you will regret having it when you’re older” and so on – Some do regret eventually, others don’t).
We quite often have students come to our school who are heritage speakers of Chinese, in the sense that their parents speak it, but they either don’t speak it that well, or speak it but are unable to write. They specifically come to us so as to fix that.

When I was in junior high, we used to study Arabic. I remember that I was actually really good at it and had high marks, but I didn’t really have an interest, and once those three years were over, I forgot everything from Arabic. Now I’m studying Arabic anew and feel it a bit of a shame that I didn’t study it harder back then or at least tried somehow to keep it. Naturally if you told me back then that I will regret losing it, I will be like “Yeah right, good riddance!”


I can’t agree with you. Obviously, I don’t think anyone should be forced into anything, but I strongly believe that you should promote multilingual environment for the kids if you have the opportunity. That way, child naturally picks it up and isn’t forced into anything. You’d probably agree that the more languages you know, easier it is to learn another and I believe it is invaluable gift we can give to our children.


If I have any kid someday, I would like to raise him/her in an English-speaking environment, but I would speak to him/her in my native language (Darija). Writing might not be an issue, since Darija for the moment is not recognized officially as a language, and has no standard form. My (likely) future wife would speak to the child in Persian, and thus hopefully he/she would be raised with at least 3 different native languages (my girlfriend and I also think we might start using Esperanto, which we are learning slowly, instead of English for most of our conversations).

Léo Bourdon

Hi Steve! I believe that you are somewhat right that whoever blames their parents still have the ability to learn languages as an adult. However, I truly think parents (and I’m one of them) can do more to get their kids interested in language learning and multicultural environments. For example, my sister-in-law (Italian in origin) is now teaching English in Guatemala. She is learning Spanish to help her. Yet she blames her father for not teaching them Italian as kids – a close language to Spanish. I can see her point of view because it wouldn’t have been that difficult to try and speak to them in Italian once in a while, but they didn’t.

Great post! I definitely think they should learn their heritage language. It’s important to know your roots and learning another language is so good for a developing child’s brain. Thanks for sharing!

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