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The Trouble With Heritage Languages

The problem with learning an ancestral or “heritage” language is that it takes just as much effort as learning any other language, except that you get no credit whatsoever for doing it well (and it’s happily assumed that you basically got it “for free”, effortless, in a native or semi-native childhood environment), only derision for the slightest error or weakness 1. And then, as if to add fly flakes to the maggot noodle soup, any errors or weaknesses in your actual native language are presumed to be due to interference from your supposedly native heritage language. Wunderbar.

So next time you meet a Japanese-American who speaks Japanese, give her a hug and a medal. She didn’t come into this game with any advantages; she wasn’t “born into” anything; she deserves it just as much as you. She deserves all the condescending praise that you do. That her family name is “Kobayashi” is virtually meaningless — just listen to the way she says it: “Coe-ba-YAH-shee”! Remember that the poor creature is an American first; she was born in America, as were her grandparents and their grandparents.

Most native speakers of English today do not have any significant English ancestry. But they generally suck painfully hard at any of the languages to which they actually have an ethnic connection. Have you heard guidos (is this a bad word? I hope this isn’t a bad word) speaking Italian? Asian languages are no different. Blood is no advantage, because (wait for it)…there’s no language in your “blood”. Nobody bleeds kanji. Every language is learned from scratch; no Goa’uld genetic memory for you. So, in a way, no one has a birthright to any language, and so everyone has an equal birthright to every language.


  1. case in point: Tokyo-born, America-bred Masi Oka of “Heroes” fame gets rinsed in Japan for his Japanese

  10 comments for “The Trouble With Heritage Languages

  1. S.
    June 11, 2013 at 00:49

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this topic! What prompted you on this particular day and at this particular moment?

    You are so right that one often receives “only derision for the slightest error or weakness”! I’ve often felt not only frustration but shame regarding how poorly I speak Japanese.(Humiliation as well, due to the insensitive comments people feel free to make regarding my lack of fluency.)

    However even though, after all these years, I’m still in the process of attempting to fully claim the language part of my heritage, I know even the baby steps that I’m making are at least steps in the right direction.

    Thanks for the AJATT encouragement, Khatzumoto!

  2. June 11, 2013 at 00:59

    This is very true. When I was in high school there were several “Italians” in my class. I taught myself Italian very well when I was 13 and my accent was… native. More native than any of the Italians, and so native my teacher was convinced I had Italian grandparents. (Come on, it couldn’t be my parents who gave me the magic language juice since I’m a (true) blond with blue eyes, super light skin and an Anglo/German name.)

    My Italian has lost a lot of its prestige because I’ve neglected it for years but there you go.

  3. duuuuude,
    June 11, 2013 at 04:24

    Dude, I didn’t choose this language, I just happened to be born on a random place on this earth :).

  4. Agent J
    June 12, 2013 at 11:08

    If you keep dropping such potent bombs of truth the bigots will find a way to shut AJATT down.

  5. corey
    June 13, 2013 at 09:20

    example number…… utada hikaru
    she worked really hard. she said it was weird for her to sing in Japanese cause she was sooo used to english… and her english is good….

  6. mihi
    June 13, 2013 at 20:31

    Ahh wunderbar.

  7. June 20, 2013 at 23:26

    I think ‘guido’ is a derogatory name to Italians and Italian-Americans.

    Your point is well made. It is almost the same with people who speak a Romance language and learn a second Romance language. There is no win. If you suck at the second Romance language, people think you must be an idiot because it should have come easy and if you speak the second Romance language like a boss, they don’t give you any credit because after all, it came easy to you due to your first Romance language. Sigh!

    Yes, Italian and Spanish share a common root but it is still hard to learn either once you know one.

    Good post.

  8. 眠い
    February 25, 2014 at 04:52

    I love Japanese and probably want to get used to several other languages that Americans call 100% useless. I have alot of time but am alone and wish to avoid being an meathead who’s main skill isn’t able to used often at all(my brother).

    Though, I’m afraid people will hate me way more once my low level English(I’m American) because I was never able to develop any social skills at all. Worse, i enjoy Japanese to the point were I could not hide it from my brother even when I started in April. He immediately noticed and is telling everyone that I am doing this probably to try to get me to stop in order to bring me down lower than him.

    Here’s an interesting note though: I thought it was me that was problem. However, I stumbled upon a foreign Twitch stream of all things long ago(I was actually looking for a Japanese stream to just relax and watch). Before anyone here thinks of me as better than you, let me tell you that I too fell into the trap of talking not doing at that point for some time right then and there.

    Lastly, I used to think that saying random things in L2+ that don’t make sense is gibberish. In my opinion, it’s actually the brain trying to piece it together and not knowing enough yet to complete the puzzle per say.

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