Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
– Rita Mae Brown
We were at a play date at a friend’s house. The two preschoolers were having a good time building a skyscraper with blocks. The two toddlers were playing with a farmhouse. My daughter, who was about 2 years old, walked over by my side and showed me a play horse and a little dog. I asked her if she liked it in Chinese. She nodded and replied back with a couple of words in Chinese. Then she skipped her way back to her friend.
Right then, my friend, Sally, said to me: “You need to keep doing that.” I looked at her and smiled. “You need to keep speaking Chinese to your kids!” she continued. Sally was raising two bilingual children as well. She spoke French to her kids even though she is an English native speaker.
Sally told me that she wished she could still speak Farsi. She said that she lost it even though she spoke it well when she was little. She wished that she could still talk with her grandmother in Farsi but she was no longer able to do that. I felt the emotion in her voice. She continued and said, “I wish my mother had insisted on only speaking Farsi to me when I replied to her in English…”
“You will keep speaking Chinese to your kids. It is going to be hard but you will keep doing it….” she said. I still remember that conversation vividly, and it has helped me over the years.
I still speak Chinese to my kids. They are teenagers now. We have encountered the tsunami of the community language (English, Spanish, French, or Russian), and we rode on a surfboard of Chinese! Yes, we tumbled from time to time. And, we got up. We tried again. We laugh together and we are fine.
Speaking your heritage language
Be fearless when it comes to speaking your heritage language to your children. It could be Burmese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hakka, Tagalog, Malay, Mongolian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.
If you are fluent in your heritage language you can start adding your heritage language to your daily routine. Make it fun for your kids. Use hands-on activities, stories, songs, cartoons, and games to introduce the language to them.
If you are not fluent in your heritage language you can brush up on it and learn with your children together. Use what you know and speak your heritage language to your children whenever possible, adding a little more every day. The best resources to get it started are grandparents, audio programs, podcasts, online programs, and extended family.
Be fearless and let’s start!
Smile. A big smile is the first step! It relaxes you and it shows the fun spirit for the kids. Even if you are going to start with a few basic greetings in your heritage language it is a step forward.
Breathe. There will be bumps in the road when teaching your children your heritage language. Take a deep breath. Smile. Start again.
Speak. Language is communication. Your kids will need consistent language input before they can speak the language. The more you speak to your children the more they will be familiar with it. It takes time but it’s worth it. Think about the moment when your child spoke his/her very first word. It is a similar process. It takes time, and it brings joy and excitement.
Heritage language and mainstream culture
As you begin to realize that every different type of music, everybody’s individual music, has its own rhythm, life, language, and heritage, you realize how life changes, and you learn how to be more open and adaptive to what is around us.”
– Yo-Yo Ma
Culture has many different dimensions to it. It encompasses language, food, music, clothing, festivals, values, tradition, gifting, how we greet people, ceremonies, religion, and many many more things.
When you introduce your heritage language and culture to kids you are also going to look at the mainstream culture that you are in.
Be a culture detective with your super teammates: your kids. Pick a topic. Ask these three questions to start your heritage culture investigation:
- What is the similarity between the culture you are in and the heritage culture?
- Can you find the differences?
- What is our family tradition?
I am an American, steeped in American values. But I know on an emotional level what it means to be of the Chinese culture.
What seems like a challenge can become a powerful habit when you practice it every day. Hop on the surfboard of your heritage language — with your kids. It's a gift you have for your children!