How to learn a language that's a part of your heritage : Life Kit Heritage language learners are different from people learning a second language for the first time. They often grow up hearing it, but that can come with its own set of challenges. Experts offer their advice on how to learn your heritage language.

How to learn a heritage language

How to learn a heritage language

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Heritage language learners can sometimes feel like a failure for not being fluent before they've even given themselves a chance to try. Finding the right tools, setting realistic goals and acknowledging existing skill can make the process of learning your parents' language more fun and fulfilling. Cha Pornea for NPR hide caption

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Cha Pornea for NPR

Heritage language learners can sometimes feel like a failure for not being fluent before they've even given themselves a chance to try. Finding the right tools, setting realistic goals and acknowledging existing skill can make the process of learning your parents' language more fun and fulfilling.

Cha Pornea for NPR

My mother's first language is Spanish. My fathers' is Persian. Mine? My mom says my first words were in her language. But that didn't last long.

By the time I was in kindergarten, I was responding to everyone who spoke to me in Spanish, in English. Unfortunately, I don't have any childhood connection to Persian – my father never spoke it at home and it's something that he deeply regrets.

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Over the years I have tried to learn more Spanish. I'll promise to only speak Spanish with my Puerto Rican family – but it doesn't take long before someone gets frustrated and reverts to English. I'm embarrassed. They're embarrassed for me. And the shame cycle continues.

I desperately want to find proficiency in at least one of my heritage languages – and I know I'm not alone. It's hard not to feel like a fake when I'm claiming an identity without the ability to fluently communicate in the language associated with that identity. When I try to rectify the problem, my efforts are met with criticism and ridicule – often from the people I want to connect with the most.

Now, I face a brutal reality: In one generation, my multicultural, multilingual family will have lost both of its heritage languages. That's something that keeps me up at night – but the thought of stopping it from happening is even more daunting. Regardless, I'm not giving up on my goal of being bilingual.

I'm trying, once again, to learn Spanish.

It's a lot to overcome, so I asked for help from experts in heritage language learning and people who are also trying to learn their own heritage languages.

Give yourself some credit for what you know – it's more than you think

The shame 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 – "It's so cute the way you say that!" – or say things like, "Oh you don't know this language. Shame on you!"

But that's not the only roadblock to learning. Carreira says heritage language learners get push back, especially in the United States, from people who think English is the only language that should be spoken, period. And so often, older family members, like mine, downplay the importance of multilingualism and encourage assimilation to shield the younger generation from the prejudice and discrimination they had to endure.

Many heritage language learners are taught that multilingualism is not a path to success, only to realize, much later in life, that it's actually a considerable asset. As adults, they're left struggling to catch-up and re-learn what they once knew.

Even people that heritage language learners expect to be the most supportive – their language teachers – chastise them for either not speaking well enough or speaking too well to be in their classroom.

"Bottom line, you can't win if you're a heritage language learner," says Carreira. That's why heritage language learners have a difficult time taking pride in what we do know, which is often a lot more than we think.

She says, first things first, give yourself some credit!

Build on your strengths

The shame and anxiety that heritage language learners experience is common. 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 heritage language learning. She says a step to improving your language skills is to catalog your strengths.

Break down your language skills into four major categories:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

Take note of what you do best in each of those categories. Because heritage language learners often have a foundation in their language, they're different from second language learners who are starting from scratch. In my case, I can understand a lot of Spanish, so my superpower is listening.

"Start with what you can do well – listening – then strategically move to reading on the same topic as whatever it was that you were listening to," she says. From there, you can start writing or speaking about the topic depending on your comfort level with those skills.

For me, this advice was eye-opening. For years, I'd start trying to improve my speaking, which is the skill I'm weakest at. I'd just get frustrated and give up.

Carreira says you're much less likely to stop if you begin with your strengths and build on them.

Decide what you want to do with your language

Spend time thinking about what you want to do with your heritage language, says Carreira. The goal of native fluency is not practical, so take that pressure off yourself. She emphasizes that you're a heritage speaker, not a native speaker.

You can be an excellent heritage speaker if you're clear about what you want to use your language for:

  • Do you want to be able to talk with your family rather than responding to them in English? That's one of my goals. I also want to use more Spanish when I'm reporting. 
  • Do you want to give a presentation about your work and have professional/formal conversations? 
  • Do you want to read the newspaper or watch TV or sing along to the radio?

Knowing what you want to do with your language will help you prioritize what you need to learn. Otherwise, you're likely to be overwhelmed and quit.

Find the tools that work for you

I've been taking a Spanish class specifically for heritage language learners. The course is designed to address the specific needs of heritage language learners and build confidence. There's something very powerful about being with other students who have a strong connection to Spanish but still feel like they're not good enough due to the expectations and pressures all around them.

I've learned more in two semesters than I have in the last twenty years of multiple (failed) attempts at trying to improve my Spanish.

If an in-person class isn'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've 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 become familiar with other cultures much more than our own heritage cultures," says Hooshmand, so they wanted to prioritize learning their heritage languages.

Because Hyun and Hooshmand are on the move, they use online tools to help them learn their heritage languages. Hyun likes viki.com where she can watch television and film from Korea. The site has a learning mode where you can watch subtitles, simultaneously, in both English and Korean. Viki.com also has content from Vietnam, Thailand, China and Japan.

Both use italki.com to practice their conversational skills. The site allows you to find a tutor in a variety of countries and set up one-on-one time to work on whatever you need help with.

Hooshmand says he would get nervous before meeting with his Persian tutor online, worried they'd be judgmental. "But then I start speaking 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 many other heritage language learners."

Hooshmand says he often leaves those tutoring sessions feeling grateful that he could connect with someone in Iran, his parents' homeland, since he can't travel there himself.

Focus on the joy

Maria Carreira says ignore the ads for language learning courses or apps that say you'll be fluent in no time. They're lying. Learning a language, even one that you have a foundation in, cannot be rushed.

To stay motivated, remember what you love most about learning your heritage language. For Hyun, it's the ability to have conversations with her mom in Korean instead of English.

"I get this little release of dopamine and I get really excited," Hyun says. "And, I make sure to have little doses of that throughout my practice." She can also tell that it makes her mom happy.

I've found both joy and solace in sharing my language learning journey on Twitter. So many people have reached out saying that it has inspired them to improve their heritage language skills.

But the ultimate joy, for me, is singing along to my favorite salsa song in the car with the windows rolled down so everyone can hear me because now I know all the words.

This has been one of the most challenging things I've done, but, so far – ¡Vale la pena! (It's worth it!)

Have you tried to learn your heritage language? What motivated you to start? What roadblocks did you face? Any tips to share with other heritage language learners?

We want to hear from you! Email us a voice memo at LifeKit@npr.org. A producer may be in touch with you.


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with engineering support from Daniel Shukhin . We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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