Tips for trying to learn a 'heritage language' Have you ever tried to learn another language? If so, you know how tough it can be. Now imagine trying to learn another language everyone already expects you to know.

Tips for trying to learn a 'heritage language'

Tips for trying to learn a 'heritage language'

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Life Kit: How to learn a heritage language

Have you ever tried to learn another language? If so, you know how tough it can be. Now imagine trying to learn another language everyone already expects you to know.


Have you ever tried to learn another language? If so, you know how tough it can be. Now, imagine trying to learn another language that everyone already expects you to know. NPR's Life Kit podcast has this episode with tips for those of you trying to learn your heritage languages, people like Shereen Marisol Meraji.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: When people meet me for the first time, they often ask me the same set of questions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Where are you from?

MERAJI: I was born and raised in California.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: But your name, it's so unique. What's your background?

MERAJI: Well, my mom's Puerto Rican and my dad's Iranian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow. What an interesting combination of cultures.

MERAJI: And next comes the question I dread most.

Oh, my God. Please do not ask me this question. Please don't do it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Do you speak Spanish?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you speak Farsi?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do you speak Persian?

MERAJI: So my Persian or Farsi is basically nonexistent, and I don't speak Spanish fluently. At this point, I'm totally flushed. I'm embarrassed. I'm dreading having to explain for the thousandth time why I don't speak my heritage languages as well as I wish I could or, you know, as well as all these people assume I should. And I feel this burning heat of shame all over my body.

And the thing is, I know I'm not alone. I have plenty of company from other heritage language learners, Spanish heritage language learners being the largest group in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We feel very self-conscious with other Latinos because we don't speak Spanish as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Korean was actually my first language, even before English, and I had lost it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Many of my uncles would call me the khareji, which means the foreigner in Persian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: And then we go out in broader society where there's assumptions about where we speak Spanish and how we speak Spanish, and we don't live up to those assumptions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: We have all this baggage.

MERAJI: Yep, many of us do. I do. And here I am, trying to learn Spanish again, a language I've heard all my life growing up around my Puerto Rican side. I can understand a lot. My pronunciation is pretty strong, but I still get really nervous and shy when speaking. So I asked for help from...

MARIA CARREIRA: Maria Carreira or, if you want to say it in Spanish, Maria Carreira.

MERAJI: Maria is a professor of Spanish, but she assured me that what she's going to say is applicable to nearly all heritage language learners. She recently started a program called the Heritage Language Exchange, and prior to that, Maria co-founded the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. She's been at this for, like, 25 years or more.

CARREIRA: At least.

MERAJI: At least.

CARREIRA: At least 25 years. In California, it's really important work.

MERAJI: Yeah. So let's start from the beginning. What makes a heritage language learner or a heritage language speaker different from somebody who just wants to learn a second language?

CARREIRA: Heritage speakers are different from L2 learners, second language learners, because they grow up hearing that language at home, living part of their lives in that language. They don't have to start with, say, my name is this or that.

MERAJI: So here we are at takeaway No. 1 - you're ahead of the game, and you probably know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. I'm looking at all of you who are already like, oh, but you don't understand. I'm really, really bad. I'm way more behind than you can imagine.

CARREIRA: Part of the shame comes from comparisons, and then part of the shame also comes from the extreme criticism that heritage language learners are frequently the target of. It comes from native speakers of the heritage language telling heritage speakers, oh, you don't know this language, shame on you. Or even when they're being kind and kind of they laugh, oh, that's so cute the way you say that, right? So there's the native speakers that criticize you. There's also English speakers who say, why are you speaking that language? This is the United States. Come on. All you need is English.

MERAJI: I feel seen, and I hope you do, too. Which brings us to our second takeaway - acknowledge what you're up against. This anxiety you feel is very common.

CARREIRA: This desire to get better is very calming, too. But if we pause for a second, Shereen, you said you can understand Spanish. That is huge. So if we start with that mindset that you can do a lot with your language, that's a very good starting point.

MERAJI: Takeaway No. 3 - know your strengths. Maria says take note of what you can do best. Like, maybe your pronunciation is on point or you're a strong reader. Maybe you can't read the script your heritage language is written in, but you're totally comfortable having a conversation about food, the weather, sports. Whatever it is, Maria says, be confident in what you can do. In my case, I can understand a lot, and I'm a good listener.

CARREIRA: Start with what you can do fairly well - listening - and then strategically move to reading on the same topic as whatever it was you were listening to. And then from there, move to writing or speaking with somebody else about the topic.

MERAJI: This is so different from the approach I had been taking for years. I'd go straight to the thing that I was weakest at, which is trying to have conversations, you know, fluid and fluent conversations. I'd get really frustrated because, of course, they weren't fluid or fluent, and I'd get embarrassed and I'd want to give up. Maria says you're much less likely to give up and stop if you start not with your weaknesses and go right there but with your strengths and build on them.

What about the logistics of doing this? How much time does one spend trying to get better at their heritage language?

CARREIRA: So you hear two things that are wrong. One thing you hear in commercials that are trying to sell you products for learning a language is that you can learn in no time. In a few months, you're going to sound like a native speaker - not so.

MERAJI: Wait. They're lying to us about that?

CARREIRA: Oh, can you believe it (laughter)? It takes a long time to master a language, right? And so you have to be patient.

At the other extreme, I work with people, linguists, who say, if you didn't start out early in life, forget about it. That's because they have the native speaker model in mind, right? It's true. You'll never sound like a native speaker. But that's because you're not a native speaker. You're a heritage speaker. But you can sound like an extremely proficient heritage speaker. Or you can be a heritage speaker that has acquired the skills that you need to do what you want to do with your language.

MERAJI: I'm going to jump in here with our next takeaway. No. 4 - spend time thinking about what you want to do with your heritage language. One of my goals is using Spanish more when I'm out reporting. Do you want to be able to read or write or give a presentation, have more formal conversations? Or are you like, forget the formality, I just want to watch TV and sing along to the radio? And when you're thinking about all this, it's important to remind yourself that you're a heritage speaker. You're not a native speaker. So take the pressure of native fluency off of yourself. Buena suerte.

PFEIFFER: That's Shereen Marisol Meraji. If you've tried to learn your heritage language, what roadblocks did you face? And do you have a tip to share with other heritage language learners? Life Kit wants to hear from you. Email us a voice memo at

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