“I wanted to fit in so badly,” she said. “I figured if I practiced English, if I spoke English well, I’d be an American, like the other kids in my school.”
This is a quote from 20 year old Fidele Harfouche, a native-born Lebanese who has been living in the U.S. since she was 6. She is one of many voices sharing their experiences in a May 7th article in the New York Times about how the younger generation in the United States is appreciating and embracing their families' languages more than ever!
This is absolutely fabulous to hear! And the fact that the NY Times is reporting on it is even more exciting! This means that the word is spreading (pun intended).
But why are they reporting on it? Because the University of California, Los Angeles, with financing from the United States Education Department, "is conducting the first national count of college programs geared toward heritage students, most of whom grew up speaking a language other than English at home."
The research was sparked by the fact that while enrollment in certain foreign language courses was dropping over the past decades, enrollment in other language courses has exploded during the same period. The correlation appears to be linked, at least in part, with students who want to "relearn" the language of their youth, their "heritage languages."
There is something to be said about the role languages play in our deepest psyches and emotional associations. As Mr. Yang, who is ethnic Chinese and grew up in Mongolia where he learned a bit of kindergarten Chinese before coming to the U.S.:
“This is going to sound nationalistic, but as I grew older, I realized that as a Chinese man, I needed to learn Chinese,” Mr. Yang said. “I guess this is about reconnecting with a big part of who I am that I had neglected for a long time.”
We should remember this when we hear our children complaining about us speaking our languages with them. They may be annoyed right now, and perhaps we will have to learn how to work with our children to find the right balance of when and where to use which languages, but in the end we should remember that a time will most likely come in their lives when they will look back and thank us for being consistent in our language choices.
There may even come a time when they turn to a heritage language course and are delighted that they can pick up the language again so quickly, and that they find that they still have an emotional connection with their family language. As Guadalupe Valdés, a professor of education and Spanish at Stanford University, said:
"in most cases, it takes heritage speakers just a few semesters to reach a level of sophistication that beginners take years to achieve."
So when you feel that you are giving up hope that your children will ever appreciate your language, and when you start to feel that you are getting into the rut of teaching them your language rather than simply "being" your language and culture with them, think of these words from Ms. Harfouche after she started her language course in Arabic, the language of her childhool and her family's native language:
“This was very fulfilling... It opened a whole new world for me. The beauty of my culture, of my Arabic culture, is in the writing, in the poetry, and knowing that I can rely on myself to read it and understand is really amazing.”
This, families around the world, is what it is really all about, isn't it?