How to (Re-)Learn Your Mother Tongue

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There are many ways of connecting with your heritage culture — personal connections, food, travel, and of course by learning your heritage language, which may have even been your mother tongue.

It depends a lot on the environment in which you were raised and the specific culture. But for both of us, one of the most important ways of connecting with our culture has been via learning the language.

As we explored re-learning our mother tongues (or rather, learning them properly), we came across a few questions, like

  • What’s the best way to learn our heritage language from our family members and friends?
  • How is learning our heritage language different from learning other languages? What tools / resources are more or less useful?
  • How can we keep a mindset of a “language learner” when technically, we’re supposed to speak this language already?

I thought it appropriate to put down these things we learned for how others, as a heritage speaker, may be able to reconnect with their culture’s linguistic roots.

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

My mother tongue is Persian, but it’s not the language I speak best. So I’ve always wanted to improve my spoken Persian.

My partner’s heritage language is Korean, and she’s always wanted to work on that (as have I).

This is a couple of language challenges common to many people:

  1. Learning our heritage language (or re-learning our own mother tongue), and
  2. Learning the mother tongue or heritage language our significant others.

Many of my friends aspire to improve their heritage language. I have friends of Latinx background in the US who never learned Spanish properly, Chinese friends in Australia and the US 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 or Heritage Language

This is our recommended approach to learning your mother tongue.

Before anything, start from a place of love, not guilt.

Then, the first step is to learn to be patient in talking to your family. Expect things to take longer, but also be okay 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…

Start with Love, not Guilt

Languages are hard. There are no easy languages, even for those with a “knack”. They take years to master and you need motivation to get you there.

But many people I spoke to about learning their heritage language are driven in part by guilt. The guilt takes shape in different ways depending on how old we are. I’ve definitely experienced this.

When we’re young, guilt about not knowing our heritage language might spur a question of self-identity. When we’re older, it might just be a general feeling of sadness that part of our culture is missing, or a feeling of embarrassment for not being able to speak with our elders in the correct tone.

Some (if not most) of the guilt is externally inflicted. For example, when I was young, my family members would call me a khaareji, or “foreigner” (never mind that we were all in Australia), because I couldn’t speak the language well and because I lacked Persian etiquette (e.g. I didn’t address people by the correct title, a bit like how in The Simpsons, Bart calls his father “Homer” rather than “Dad”).

Nonetheless, guilt isn’t a good place to start. If it’s a primary drive in learning a language, you may struggle to keep motivated. There are no easy languages, and even for those with a “knack”, each one takes years to learn properly.

But if you love the idea of learning your heritage language, then you’re in the right spot.

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 simply be in the presence of a spouse/partner who speaks another language. It’s hard enough communicating with a loved one using the language in common that you have. Why add complexity?

When I talk with my family about a difficult topic in a language other than English, I sometimes panic. 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 often do 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 Persian.

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. Persian 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 Persian 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 Persian, 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 Persian. I can stop people and ask them to repeat something in Persian.

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 Persian.

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 Persian 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 Persian book I used.

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

When asking native speakers how to learn a language, they might recall the way they learned as children. In many cases, they already could speak, but remember taking classes on reading and writing. Unfortunately, this is rarely relevant for someone who can’t speak.

To learn to speak your heritage language, 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!)

The tools you choose depends a little on your goals. If you aim to comprehend, then you’ll look for podcasts and films/TV. If you aim to speak, then we’d suggest you start speaking straight away. And if you aim to read, then find books.

There are two specific things we would recommend for the approach you take: 1. Start with the hardest thing first, and 2. Keep notes in an Anki deck.

On starting with the hardest thing: Say for example your goal is to speak to older people properly, without resorting to slang or words in other languages. If that’s your goal, then go find a teacher and do that on day one.

You will definitely be intimidated and feel like you’re struggling. But remember that the teacher is there to help you.

A good teacher (which includes basically all of the high-rated ones on italki) is patient and understanding and definitely non-judgmental. (Sometimes it’s hard to remember that because family can seem judgmental and impatient.)

Once you realise how patient a teacher can be, you’ll slow down and start learning.

And keep records in an Anki deck. If you haven’t used Anki, it’s free software that runs on both Apple and Windows computers in which you store flashcards. Make two-sided cards of both your base language and target language and audio. It’s the “gold standard” for language learners.

If you haven’t used Anki for flashcards before, check out our guide to getting started with Anki here.

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.

It’s really worth it figuring out Anki right now rather than years later, collecting all your notes and inputting them into Anki when you finally see the light. Trust me on that one.

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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