Folium: It Takes A Classroom To Learn The Family Language via NPR

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Folium: It Takes A Classroom To Learn The Family Language via NPR


Throughout the United States, there are children of all ages that struggle with their cultural identity due to the suppression of the “heritage language” that their parents or grandparents speak. These kids grew up listening to, watching, or even being spoken to by extended family members in a language that they never learned. For example, the author, Danielle Alvarez, grew up with Spanish-speaking parents, and felt this same kind of disconnect with her cultural heritage because of a lack of Spanish language exposure in her home. She says, “she got by with the few phrases she had picked up from her Mexican-born father: “good night”, “put a coat on”, “be careful”. Her half-Colombian mother didn’t speak Spanish either; “it wasn’t a big priority.”

“I didn’t feel quite as Mexican or Colombian compared to my cousins,” she says. “I didn’t quite know where to place myself.” – Danielle Alvarez

When it comes to a heritage identity crisis, it’s easy to compare yourself to and feel inadequate when around extended family members who speak the language fluently. Speaking from personal experience, I grew up near my extended Mexican-American family who all spoke Spanish. I became accustomed to the intriguing dinner conversations that I never understood. Not understanding what was being said started to irk me at the start of my pre-teen years. Similar to Danielle’s experience, I felt like I could say a few phrases. It wasn’t until high school where I really began to take in the language more fully in my Spanish classes. Danielle says people would hear her Spanish surname and assume she could speak the language. Similarly for me growing up, because I look Latina, and I grew up in California, I would often have to return a blank stare when other Latinos spoke Spanish to me. I felt like a “Fake Latina” because I couldn’t speak the language. I have been fortunate to have gained the language skills necessary to now teach it to others. I feel a connection to my ancestors and my Spanish-speaking relatives that I had never felt before. As I became fluent in Spanish, I started to think and act less like an “American” and more like myself.

Author. Julie Thatcher and her Grandmother.

Julie Thatcher (Martin, Trocosso) and her Grandmother (Trocosso)

LEAF Folium Percentage of people who speak native language at home

“Heritage Language Loss at Home Over Time in the USA.”

Nadya Faulx (NPR) emphasises “The desire to reinforce ethnic identity through language is a feeling that I and many other first-, second- and third-generation Americans understand well.” Nadya states: “My half-Palestinian mother grew up in Lebanon and speaks Arabic; for various reasons, I don’t.” In a similar situation, Nadya was dealing with the same type of heritage identity crisis that both Danielle and I have felt saying: “I’ve never felt entirely comfortable identifying as an Arab, at least not compared to my cousins who grew up in the Middle East.” Not having that identifiable language marker to set her apart as Arab, Nadya knew that she could never legitimize herself as Middle-Eastern. More often than not, when first generation immigrants arrive in the United States (or other lands) they tend to take on the traditions of their current surroundings.

Second generation immigrants can reach a stable multicultural identity and thus pass this on to their own children, but only if the traditions and also language and culture, are preserved by the parents. In the three cases I have addressed, there was little preservation, thus the second and third generation immigrants were unable to hold onto that part of their heritage. You have to get creative in ways to express your identity. You don’t have to be just one thing. The author, Nadya (NPR), says “I want something to remain that will keep me connected to my family, and to our Arab culture” that will keep her connected and her children one day, connected to her heritage.

Julie Thatcher
LEAF Contributor