To learn any language takes an awful lot of motivation. So if the children of immigrants are motivated to learn their heritage language because they want to talk to family members, or because they are interested in that culture or identify with that culture, then by all means. Any motivation or opportunity is great when it comes to language learning.
However, if they’re not motivated to do so then they should just be left alone. There should not be, in my view, any pressure to learn the “heritage language” as if it were some kind of moral obligation. I have never felt there was any higher value in learning the ancestral language over any other language.
My Language Heritage 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.
I 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.
Professor Henry Yu, who teaches history at the University of British Columbia, even blamed the mainstream English speaking society in Canada for the fact that he could not speak Chinese, having emigrated to Canada at the age of 3. Well, I learned to speak Mandarin and Cantonese, and to read Chinese books, all as an adult. These are not my ‘heritage language”. Henry Yu could learn these languages if he was sufficiently motivated. The mainstream English speaking society is not responsible for his language learning choices.
In my own case, I might say I wish my mother had insisted that I continue taking piano lessons. The problem is that 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 for me 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, and on and on. Now I am working on Arabic and Farsi, my 17th and 18th languages.
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. He is now the CEO of LingQ and has studied five languages which he speaks to varying degrees of fluency.
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?
My good friend Tetsu Yung, from Montreal, is raising multilingual children. Tetsu grew up in Taiwan. His father speaks Mandarin and his mom is Japanese. He went to high school in Quebec and now works mostly in English. Tetsu’s wife is Japanese. So Tetsu has a rule for his two toddlers. “One person, one language”. His kids speak Mandarin to their grandpa and to Tetsu, Japanese to their grandma and mom, Spanish their Latin American nanny, French at pre-school and with their friends, and watch English language TV. They are remarkably fluent in five languages. This is truly wonderful but few people can pull this off.
The reality is that, in all probability, within a few generations in Canada, most children of immigrants will intermarry and often choose to speak English or French. By the third generation, two-thirds of Canadians have parents who are not of the same ethnic group, so English or French simply take over.
People can get moralistic about learning the heritage language, or even about learning language. Children of immigrants can face pressure to speak their parents language, or in the case of, for example, Canadians of Chinese or Korean origin. It’s, it’s as if their facial features pegs them as someone who should speak a certain language. This is not fair.
People should be free to follow their interests. I know lots of people whom I respect and admire , and who speak only one language. We scan encourage people, especially young people, to get interested in languages, especially if we are that way inclined. But then we should leave them alone and respect their choice.
So in summary I don’t agree that it’s obviously a good thing to learn one’s heritage language, that it’s showing respect for your heritage, or that it contributes to diversity etc. If people do learn their heritage language, that’s fine, but if they don’t like doing it that’s equally fine. Let people learn the languages that they’re interested in.