Mother’s Day is on its way, so it’s the perfect time to look at two topics close to us: mother languages and how language can help us feel connected to our families. Languages are an important way to build relationships, pass down generational knowledge, and express ourselves. But what happens to people who lose their mother languages as they get older?
A “mother language” is the first language learned at home as a child. For many people raised in bilingual or multilingual homes, their mother language or languages may not be the main ones they use. It's easy to assume that if you learn a language from childhood, you’ll know it for life. But the truth is, a language is like a muscle that can atrophy from underuse. Learning a new language often means unlearning another one. For kids in multilingual households, this means their knowledge of their own mother tongues fade away as they get older and become surrounded by English in their schools and communities. By adulthood, they might even have a harder time communicating with their own families.
Fortunately, there are more resources than ever out there to help adults learn languages on their own time— and connect with their own family members and family histories.
Why is it so important?
Scott Berghegger writes, “Reconnecting with and understanding ancestry and community is the driving force behind heritage language learning.” If this is an impulse you feel, you’re certainly not alone. Many people learning a language connected to their own heritage report feeling stronger senses of identity, belonging, and even self-esteem. Feeling closer to family and heritage can make learners feel more secure in who they are and their place in the world.
On a more practical level, learning a language spoken by family members can make it easier to communicate with family, travel, enjoy popular culture (like movies and music in the target language), and pass down traditions like recipes and songs that may otherwise be lost to time. The benefits just never end!
More and more people have been sharing their own experiences of reconnecting with a mother language or learning a family language for the first time. While it may feel shameful or isolating to forget your mother tongue, it’s a more common experience than many language learners realize. If this is something you’re dealing with, rest assured that you are not alone. These are just a few of the interesting stories we’ve found in the media.
In a moving article for the New Yorker, “Forgetting My First Language,” Jenny Liao writes about how her Cantonese slipped away so slowly, she hardly realized it. After moving out of her parents’ house, she just didn’t get the level of practice and exposure to the language she was used to. Before long, she became dependent on online dictionaries and translator apps when having conversations with them. She describes “shallow but familiar” weekly phone calls, repetitive enough to understand with her limited communication skills. She writes, “My parents and I have no heart-to-heart conversations, no mutual understanding, on top of cultural and generational gaps to reckon with.”
Growing awareness of her parents’ aging made Liao realize that she didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives obstructed by a language barrier. Brushing up her Cantonese became her number one goal. She made an effort to practice Cantonese in stores and restaurants, watched and listened to Cantonese language media, and pushed herself into deeper and more emotionally meaningful conversations with her family. Soon, they were discussing much more personal topics and sharing their feelings, if perhaps a little clumsily. Even a modest improvement in language skills was enough to bring them closer.
Passing it on
In an article for “Today’s Parent,” Martha Troian explains that she doesn’t just want to share a language with older generations of her family. Becoming a mother makes her realize that she wants to pass a heritage language on to her son. But to do that, she’ll have to learn it first. Troian’s mother grew up in residential schools where she was forbidden to speak her native Ojibway tongue. As an adult, she was ashamed of her heritage and never spoke the language at home.
As an adult, Troian worked hard to learn Ojibway whenever and wherever she could. With her son, she writes, she instated a practice that, “If we know how to say something in Ojibway, we should say it whenever we can.” The family uses sticky notes to label items around the house in Ojibway and makes language learning materials available in the living room. She writes, “It’s a reminder that, as Indigenous and Inuit peoples, we will never again be stripped of our identity, culture and practices. And in my own home, speaking our native language takes place every day.”
Here’s a secret: people raised in multilingual families actually have an advantage over language learners who are "starting from scratch." When you’re already steeped in language and culture, you’ll learn much faster than the other students. Even if you don’t speak any of your target language at all, you may find it easier to pick up the pronunciation just from being exposed to it. You might even realize you recognize more words than you thought. Studies also show that students with a personal investment in or connection to learning a language often engage more in the language learning process, too. That definitely includes those learning a heritage language.
Connect with us
Do you have experience losing your own mother language? What inspired you to pick up a language as an adult? Have you felt a renewed connection to your own family members thanks to learning a heritage language? We’d love to hear your experiences!
Are you thinking about starting your own language learning journey? If you’ve always wanted to learn or re-learn a heritage language, it's never too late. We offer virtual language lessons in 11 languages, including Spanish, French, Mandarin, German, Italian, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, and English for many different levels of experience— as well as options for kids! We’re looking forward to meeting you!