Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?

Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?

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.

Should Kids Learn their Heritage 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.

Placing Blame

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.

Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?

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.

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9 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.

I was born and raised in Russia, but my parents are of Japanese and Korean origin. They both did not speak any other language but Russian, neither did I, of course. When I was a kid someone from my family wanted me to learn some Japanese but I did not show any interest and they did not insist.

I don’t regret that I didn’t take my chance back then, because now I understand that learning a language “из-под палки” is a waste of time. Never I was interested in English too, until I grew up and realized (as an adult) that it was really important.

Well, probably someday I will have interest in Japanese and Korean and learn them. Anyway, I’ve never had any shame for not speaking them because my parents didn’t speak them too.

Name *Steve

Sorry Steve, I don’t agree. I understand that your situation growing up was very different, but not everybody is the same. If we don’t care about our native language, most of our kids will only learn English, maybe French as well (in Quebec the other way around). Not everyone is enthusiastic about learning languages. As things are going in this world, are we all just going to speak English then? Why would anyone want that? The true beauty is in preserving different languages, not erasing them.

Hi Steve! Really great post with some great points, but I disagree with your conclusion. You’ve discussed your arguments in relation to children of immigrants and families with differing cultural backgrounds, but have you considered other situations, e.g. people who have not learned to speak their native language because a non-native language is the dominant language in their native land? In this example, would you still say it’s ‘equally fine’ for them to not like learning their heritage language?

I agree that language learning should not be forced, but the struggle for some people to have their language (and therefore culture) more recognised and represented is real. Here’s an example that might put things into perspective: in Australia (where I currently live), the learning of indigenous languages in schools has been described as ‘not economically valuable’ for kids in the long term by some people.

This kind of sentiment has been used to justify prioritising the learning of certain languages over others for business, in schools, universities, and so on all around the world, even in the native lands of the languages not being prioritised.

What do you think of the idea that perhaps another key reason why many people choose to learn other languages over their heritage language is because they are more valued? And, more importantly, do you think this is really okay?

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