What Grandma (Really) Taught You

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Did you spend your early childhood with someone who spoke another language?

Some of you are blessed by having a grandma (or grandpa) who helped raise you when you were little (really little – under 5 years old). Grandma took you to the park and to the store. You played games together. You ate sandwiches and homemade cookies.

Your grandma was different, though. She spoke to you in her native language. As soon as you went off to school, you stopped learning Grandma’s language. You may understand it, but you never went to school using Grandma’s language.

Now you’re an adult. If you’ve never gone back to study the language, how fluent are you?

Typically, children who spend their early childhood speaking their caregiver’s language do certain things really well. They pronounce the sounds really well. They know simple, basic syntax structures (word order) really well.

What don’t you do well?

Imagine a 3 or 4-year-old preschool child who speaks your native language. This is what you probably sound like.

Your vocabulary is limited to what you did with Grandma. Whatever Grandma enjoyed doing with you, whatever her interests were, you know that vocabulary. Your grammar is limited to simple structures – probably with lots of errors. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s completely normal. A young, monolingual child in English will say, “I goed to the park today,” because the child hasn’t mastered irregular past tense for ‘to go’. Again, completely normal.

Now you’re an adult and you want to learn about your family’s culture and language. This is such a great opportunity, but what do you need to do?

Here are some quick pointers:

1. Don’t be surprised if, when you’re taking a class, other learners have better grammar and vocabulary than you do.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other learners who didn’t grow up at Grandma’s knee. Their skills have nothing to do with your potential.

3. Don’t slack off if you find a language course too easy for you at the beginning because other learners are struggling with pronunciation and basic grammar structures. I’ve seen too many learners who don’t take the language seriously because they think their hot stuff compared to others. This catches up to them quickly and slaps them in the face (see #1 above).

4. Invest time in really learning the grammar and vocabulary – focus on these through reading in the language.

5. Transcription can be a most useful strategy for you at the very beginning. Transcription connects the sounds of the language (which you already know) with the written letters (or characters) while forcing you to think about grammar.

There you have it! You have a heritage language and are blessed that your family was able to gift this to you. Apart from your multicultural heritage, your label in the language education field is ‘heritage speaker’ if you want to research more about this language learning phenomenon.

Sending success your way!


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