How to Learn Your Mother Tongue

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All the things we’re doing to re-learn our mother tongues properly at home, with general tips for heritage language learners.

Learning your Mother Tongue from your Parents — how to learn a heritage language

My mother tongue is Farsi (Persian), and I’ve always wanted to improve it. Jo’s family’s language is Korean, and she’s always wanted to work on that (as have I). This is a language challenge common to many people: learning the language (or a language) of our cultural heritage.

Many of my friends have aspirations with their heritage language. I’ve got friends of Latinx background in the US who never learned Spanish properly, Chinese friends in Australia who always wanted to improve their Chinese, and Arab friends the world over who want to learn either spoken Arabic or Standard Arabic (see here for the differences). And many other similar examples.

But how do you learn your parents’ language that you already kind of know? If you’re anything like me, your family is already used to using words in English (or another language) interspersed with their language. You don’t know much formal grammar, and things like the newspaper or podcasts terrify you.

That’s exactly how I was, and this is what I did to learn my mother tongue properly. (Forever a work in progress!)


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Overview — Learning your Mother Tongue

This is our recommended approach to learning your mother tongue.

The first step is to learn to be patient in talking to your family. Expect things to take longer, but also be OK with it, and anticipate the stress.

Meanwhile, define your goals. Make sure you know exactly what you want to get to (e.g. watching movies, singing karaoke), and that will inform what you do daily.

Tell everyone you’re learning your mother tongue, and ask for their support. You’ll need to do this repeatedly.

Finally, gather your language-learning tools (books, teachers — you’ll need them — and flashcard decks) and get learning!

You might also like these posts on language learning…

Set up: Practise patience in communication

Communicating with your family is difficult and stressful at the best of times.

That’s why it’s not enough to have a spouse/partner who speaks another language. It’s hard enough communicating with the language you have. Why would you add another complexity?? Are you mad?

When I talk with my family talking about a difficult topic in a language other than English, I sometimes panic slightly. I forget a word, or have no idea how to build a phrase. But I have to remember that people are usually willing to wait.

So the first thing I do — and which I encourage everyone to do — is to learn to be patient. When you don’t know a word, don’t panic. Breathe in. Ask how to say the word. Or at very least, write it down so you can look it up later.

What I do often is say “I’m just writing this word down” and then continue with the conversation. Everyone knows I’m learning the language (see Step 2 below) and is surprisingly willing to wait.

Step 1: Define your language learning goals

A scene from the Farsi/Persian film "A Separation". Define your language learning goals, e.g. watching films, listening to music.
A scene from the Iranian film “A Separation”, one movie I watched in Farsi.

The most important part is to realise what you want to do. Then go after it.

My goals are the following.

  1. Movies and music. I want to understand Persian movies without subtitles, and to be able to follow the lyrics of songs.
  2. Rich conversation on deep topics. I want to know what is going on in conversational interview-style podcasts and to be able to participate in similar topics.
  3. The news. I want to be able to understand the news (at least most of it).
  4. Politeness/etiquette. I want to be able to speak to older Persians and address them with the culturally appropriate etiquette to seem not like an oaf.

A few other goals I’ve put to one side: poetry and comedy. Farsi has a rich history of poetry, and a student of Persian can, in theory, understand poems from a thousand years ago, from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings”. And I just love comedy anyway, so I thought it’d be fun to understand Persian comedians.

But after chatting with some tutors about it, I’ve learned that Farsi poetry needs its own vocabulary which isn’t very useful in getting better at everyday Persian and will require a longer period of study.

And learning to understand Persian comedy — this is more doable, but it’s not a short-term objective. Like the comedy of any culture, I’ll need to spend time understanding the social and political context before I can get the jokes.

Step 2: Tell everyone your language learning goals — and own them.

Many heritage speakers are both embarrassed by our levels of our mother tongue and also a little resigned to never improving it.

On top of that, it’s much emotionally easier to make progress in a language with which I have no connection. When I speak bad Farsi, I feel slightly ashamed. But when I speak bad Chinese, who cares? Look at me! I didn’t grow up there! It’s amazing I speak any Chinese!

So the first thing I did to really own my goal of learning my mother tongue was tell not just my family, but my friends.

By telling my family about my language-learning goals: I was setting up ground rules. I’m now in the mode of speaking Farsi. I can stop people and ask them to repeat something in Farsi.

Critically, when people use an English word in a sentence (either for their own convenience or mine), I could ask them how they say that in Farsi.

It’s a little awkward at first. People tend to forget. In the case of my parents, they’ve spent 2/3 of their lives (and their entire professional careers) outside Iran, and so sometimes they even speak to each other in English without realising it.

But as time goes on, it improves!

Note to my own family: If you are my family and you are reading this, then from now on, you must speak Farsi with me!

اگر از خانواده من هستی و این مقاله را داری می خوانی ، از این پس باید فقط فارسی با من صحبت کنی!

Step 3: Gather your language-learning tools — and start!

Choose your language learning materials wisely. This is the Farsi text I use.
The Teach-Yourself Farsi book I used.

Your parents aren’t actually the best teachers, nor do they know the best resources.

You still need the same old tools we suggest you use for any other language: a good reference book (or a few), a teacher (we still use italki, even for our mother tongues!)

It’s important to set up your own Anki deck even though you’re proficient in the language. In my experience, it’s just as hard learning new words in my mother tongue as it is in any other language.

(Haven’t used Anki for flashcards before? Check out our guide to getting started with Anki here.)

Go immerse yourself in language-learning opportunities — watching films, reading blogs, listening to the news, whatever is part of your goals — and keep adding words to your decks (and reviewing them).

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