Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Heritage languages are a birthright

I just read a blog that stated "Heritage languages are a birthright." And...I passionately believe that to be true.

Growing up Chinese-American, I often lamented that my mother's generation let go of their language in order to fit in to the American culture of the 40's & 50's. I understand, but I still feel like our generation somehow got cheated out of our heritage language. I was fascinated as a child to listen to my grandmother Ng Fong Hai, speak in her native Cantonese. At the same time, I was sad because I couldn't understand her. In the 50's and 60's, learning your heritage language was simply not a priority. Yes, I feel cheated.

I wish now that my mom had felt that her heritage language had value instead of treated like something to be overlooked, forgotten or worse...ashamed of. Nowadays, being bilingual in corporations is a leg up the corporate ladder because we live in a global economy.

My cousin Jeff went to live in Bejing for a year of his college to become bilingual with Mandarin Chinese. He is teaching his children by speaking Mandarin at home. I think he is giving his children a wonderful advantage that will ultimately broaden their lives.

Learning language as a child is like learning to breath. My granddaughter Gabby is half El Salvadorian. Her parents see the importance of teaching her both languages. At two, she often speaks to me in Spanish and English both. I am amazed at how effortless it is. Children have the capacity to learn and embrace as many languages as you want to teach them. I remember taking a class as a child, but I never did anything with it later. I wish I had.

"Growing up bilingual is a perfectly normal human state; being able to speak, read, and write in more than one language is not harmful. There are plenty of places in the world where bilingual education is the healthy norm.

Why can’t we get it right in the US? A) Because it’s politicized. B) Because education is underfunded. C) Because monolinguals don’t understand bilingualism." — JP Villanova speaks 5 languages and teaches. Read his blog at

Today, I work at a school that has children of African American, Hispanic, Somali African, Indigenous American and European American descent. I am trying very hard to learn Spanish. We have an ESL program, but no translators at the school. I am saddened when I hear others I work with cluck about wishing that "these people" would learn English. I am acutely aware of the political overtones. Of course I understand that it is important for immigrants to learn English in order to communicate, and participate fully in our society, but I hope it is not at the expense of their children's birthright to communicate with their own grandparents.

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