Advice to heritage language learners: Don’t focus so much on the language!

A typical heritage language learner has learned their heritage language to some extent in childhood from parents and relatives, but they’ve become more proficient in the language that dominates where they’ve grown up and been formally educated.

The question they face is how they can develop their heritage language from their current level to higher levels of proficiency.

Heritage language learning is quite a complex area that encompasses a range of issues, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on it.

However, seeing a couple of questions recently from heritage learners on the subreddit r/languagelearning, I felt obliged to offer some suggestions based on my experience and knowledge of language acquisition.

To me the difficulties these posters express appear to be consequences of the influence of “traditional” language learning with its focus on language itself, and they point to the advantages of comprehension-based approaches such as Automatic Language Growth (ALG) that focus on understanding and communicating meaning.

Discouraged by language study?

In the first question I came across, the poster asked whether it was bad that they wanted to forget their heritage language, Vietnamese.

They wrote that they tried to relearn it, but they found the grammar difficult compared to Spanish.

I found this statement a bit surprising because Spanish is often thought to have rather complex grammar, with features like extensive verb conjugations and gender that Asian languages like Vietnamese lack.

Though the poster appears to count themselves unsuccessful in relearning Vietnamese, they also write that they speak it “to a basic degree of fluency”.

It seems as if they’re discounting what ability they do have with the language, which they probably picked up naturally from their relatives, and instead writing themselves off based on their bad experience with trying to “relearn” it through study.

Based on what the poster wrote, I guessed that their attempt to “relearn” Vietnamese was based on trying to study about the language using things like grammatical explanations and translation.

As I pointed out to them, even many native speakers of a language find explicitly understanding and describing their language in this way difficult.

My sense is that their idea of language learning is a “traditional” one that’s centered on conscious study and practice with books in classroom settings, and this has limited their view of how they could improve in the language.

Adding to this impression is that they didn’t mention trying to do anything communicative with Vietnamese beyond speaking it with their relatives.

In my response, I agreed that the poster was under no obligation to continue with the language, nor bad for not wanting to.

But I suggested that before deciding to give up, they should at least do something like look up different Vietnamese language content on YouTube, sampling it to see what they can understand and what they find interesting, in order to get a better sense of what they might be able to do with the language.

Another commenter suggested doing things like travelling to the country and seeking out people of similar background, and I agreed that more communicative things like this would be good too, but I suggested online videos because they were the most easily accessible thing for the poster to look into.

It seems to me that many heritage language learners don’t bother to try to use their heritage language beyond the family environment where they picked it up.

I suggested this might be because they take their heritage language ability for granted, having acquired it without study from their family in childhood, and also being so used to using the language in this context, they might not be able to see it as useful outside of this context.

But now that I think of it, I suspect that another reason why many heritage language learners don’t bother to try to use the language in different ways is because like many people they’ve come to equate language learning with conscious study and practice rather than understanding and communicating meaning.

For this poster, it appears that the traditional study path may have left them feeling discouraged and defeated, whereas if they were to try to use the language in different contexts communicatively, they might be surprised and encouraged by what they are capable of in it.

Focusing on language creates anxiety

The next poster I came across wrote about wanting to improve their Swedish.

Having moved from Sweden around the age of three, they wrote they knew only basic phrases and understood the language in context.

They asked how to get rid of anxiety about speaking Swedish with their mother, who is fluent in the language.

They wrote that their mother would start speaking it to them and expect them to respond, or would ask them to tell her something they know in Swedish, and they would feel anxious about making mistakes.

I think that the main cause of anxiety in these interactions is the focus on the language in these interactions with their mother rather than on simply communicating.

In my response, I suggested to the poster that they instead ask their mother to speak Swedish with them, but allow them to respond in the language they normally speak with her.

I suggested that they and their mother interact this way and have interactions that focus on communication, for example talking about things that interest them and their mother knows about life in Sweden, perhaps using things like photos or things from the country to prompt conversation and provide context.

With conversations like this, I think the anxiety will be far lower because the focus is on real communication, and over time the poster will pick up more and more of the language and eventually will start being able to naturally speak it themselves.

“Say something!”

The experience the poster describes reminds me of my own experience learning Thai through the AUA Thai Program and my interactions with Thais.

In my first year in Thailand, when I met Thais outside of class who spoke English and we used English to communicate, they would ask me what I was doing living in Thailand.

When I said I was learning Thai, they would often ask me to “say something” in Thai.

I would feel a bit anxious and not know what to say.

I was also following the ALG approach that the AUA program uses, where we aren’t supposed to try to speak Thai but instead let it emerge as a result of a lot of listening and understanding.

Keeping with this “input first” approach, sometimes I responded to the Thai person by asking them to say something to me in Thai, so then maybe I could respond to it, just using English if I couldn’t respond in Thai.

It seemed they usually became just as tongue-tied at my request they “say something” in Thai as I had when they asked me to “say something” in Thai—even though Thai was their first language!

To me this illustrates how when we put the focus on language—which is what’s happening in the request to “say something” in a language—this focus can actually become a hindrance to communication.

In contrast, later on that when I was back in Canada and spent some time with Thais and they spoke the language around me while we were eating and so on, I would start to say things in Thai automatically in response to what they were saying.

They commented that I sounded like a Thai person, something I credit to internalizing the sounds of the language first with a lot of listening.

Focus on communication, not language

Again, I’m no expert in the topic of heritage language learning, so I can’t offer specific advice or prescriptions about exactly what to do.

However, from what I’ve read of heritage language learners’ experiences, it seems clear to me that a lot of discouragement and missed opportunities are caused by putting too much of a focus on the language itself rather than focusing on communication.

This focus on language can be through explicit study and practice of the language and its rules, as it appears the heritage Vietnamese speaker tried to do.

It can also be through pressure to try to speak the language, as the heritage Swedish learner felt, where it becomes about feeling obligated to respond in the language or “say something” in order to learn it.

I think a big part of the answer for how many heritage learners can move ahead and build proficiency in their heritage languages is to create situations that are focused on meaningful communication in the language.

These situations should be enjoyable and fun, and build connections with family members and other speakers of the heritage language.

Communication: More than just speaking

It’s important to note here that communication does not mean only speaking the heritage language.

Speaking is just one part of communication, one tool of many that can be used to communicate.

Non-verbal communication like body language and context like shared background also powerfully contribute to communicating meaning, and help the learner understand and thus acquire more language.

Listening and understanding the language, even when one doesn’t speak it oneself, can also be communicative.

The heritage learner is still engaged in communication when they respond to someone who’s speaking the heritage language in the dominant language they both understand.

(Within the ALG approach this kind of conversation where each person speaks their own language is known as Crosstalk)

Instead of a having pressure to speak or say something in the heritage language, I think much better situations result where the learner can understand and communicate in whatever way works best for them.

This gives them a low-anxiety and welcoming environment where they can gradually speak the language more and more as they gain understanding.

Comprehension-based approaches like ALG suggest that much better results come when production is not forced, but allowed to emerge through getting a lot of understandable exposure to the language.

I think the development of these kinds of approaches and opportunities to learn languages through them will provide heritage learners with better ways to take advantage of the experience they already have with their languages, and get new and better experiences in their languages so they can go as far as they would like with them.

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