Should Kids Learn their Heritage Language?
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann.
Today I'm going to talk about language learning as it relates to learning the language of one's ancestors or the heritage language, as it's fashionable now to call the language of your country of origin if you're an immigrant, where do I stand on it. I had two emails or two messages in YouTube, I can't remember which. One person said that he's married to a lady from Hong Kong and he's trying to get his kids to learn Cantonese, do I have any advice, what did I do. Then another person said that he wishes his parents had insisted that learn Flemish. He didn't do so and this is cutting him off from members of his family, sort of challenging me for not being keen on the idea of learning the ancestral language. So where do I stand on this?
My view is that to learn any language takes an awful lot of motivation. So if the child of an immigrant is very motivated to learn the language of origin because he or she wants to talk to their grandmother, grandfather, whatever, that's great. However, if they're not motivated to do so then they should just be left alone. I don't think there's any particular, greater, moral, obligation, value in having someone learn the language of one's ancestors, the language of one's ethnic group, rather than some other language. If I take my own case, my parents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
They were German-speaking in a Jewish community in Moravia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least Moravia, became Czechoslovakia. So they spoke mostly German, but at some point they started going to Czech schools once Czechoslovakia was formed. So they spoke both of those languages, but German was more natural for them. They left in '39 before Hitler came in and went to Sweden, which is where I was born, so for the first five years of my life from 1945 to 1950 I spoke Swedish. Then we immigrated to Canada and my parents decided that we're now in Canada and we're going to speak English. I always spoke English with my parents and that was fine.
I never had any sense that my communication with my parents was in any way inhibited. There was no pressure to learn German or Czech. If anything, my parents wanted me to learn French, which we studied at school without any great success. They were quite happy that we spoke English because we lived in Canada. Of course kids are very interested in hanging around with their peers, so I think it's difficult to get kids to learn the ancestral language. Some are interested, some are not, but I don't there's any great moral value. Like this fellow who says he's mad at his father for not forcing him to speak Dutch, well learn it then.
I don't know how old this person is, but I'm 66 and I'm learning Czech now. I started 10 months ago. I've learnt a number of languages in the last 10 years. Learn it, how can you blame your parents. In reality, back in those days you probably weren't very interested. In my own case, I might say I wish my mother had insisted that I continue taking piano lessons. I didn't want to do it and so, eventually, after fighting day after day after day around the piano she let me quit. There's no point in hindsight now to say that I wish she had forced me. It was just too much effort because I didn't want to do it. I developed my own interests. Insofar as languages are concerned, the first second language that I learned was French.
The first language besides English that I learned to speak well was French, followed by Chinese and Japanese and then probably Spanish and German. It had nothing to do with whatever might be considered the language of my ancestors. My wife, who was born in Makow and whose mother is Costa Rican, the language she spoke the best was Cantonese, but the language of her mother was Spanish. So now, in terms of our kids, which ancestral language should we be forcing them to learn? As it was I couldn't even get them to learn French, which I tried very hard to do. The more we tried, the more they resisted. It wasn't until my son Mark had the opportunity to live in different foreign countries as a professional hockey player that he became interested in learning languages. I just think language learning is something you do if you're interested.
If the parents can create an environment where the children are genuinely interested in learning the language then they might be able to pull it off. In many cases they won't and, in some cases, they might actually turn the kid off learning that language. To me, the culture is not in the DNA. We have immigrants here from, I don't know, Latin-America, someone who comes here from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico. Those people are also mixed, so is the ancestral language Spanish? Is it Arabic if they're of Lebanese origin? I know Lebanese-origin Mexicans.
I know Jewish Mexicans. There are Japanese Brazilians, African origin. So what's the ancestral language? How many generations are you going to go back with this. The reality is that in all probability in Canada within a few generations all those people will intermarry and only speak English. In Canada by the third generation, two-thirds of the people have spouses who are not of the same ethnic group so English just simply takes over. People get very moralistic about this.
It's just so obviously a good thing to learn the ancestral language. It's part of your heritage. It's diversity and blah, blah, blah. If people do it that's fine, nothing wrong with it, but if they don't like doing it that's equally fine, equally fine in my opinion. Let people learn the languages that they're interested in. I don't know if there's much more to say.
Oh, yeah, insofar as what we did with our kids, we tried very hard. We would travel. We sent our kids to French summer camp. When we lived in Ottawa we sent them to a bilingual school. We traveled in France, I had a French tape going in the car and all it did was build up resistance. The kids just hated it and they still talk about it. It just didn't work. It's not that we didn't try. It wasn't because it was the ancestral language, it's just because we wanted them to speak another language, one, possibly more eventually, it didn't work. So I'm not a big fan of all this and you may know that I'm not a big of multiculturalism.
In other words, the ideology of multiculturalism, celebrate the differences. As if countries like Canada should be as diverse as possible and, on the other hand, countries of origin should be as culturally homogenous as possible. The whole thing is full of contradictions, but it creates jobs for people. It's a big political boondoggle and an opportunity for a lot of politically-correct people to feel very proud of themselves, but has no intrinsic value in my view. So thank you for listening, bye for now.