Releasing Shame and Embracing Imperfection 

Last month, I hosted my first Language Preservation Parenting webinar. Parents, soon to be parents, aunties, grandparents, and community members gathered to learn about passing on their culture and language to the next generation. Participants spoke a range of heritage languages (Mandarin, Spanish, French, Creole, and Amharic), and shared a common desire to see these languages stay alive within their families. 

During the webinar, I asked participants to share some of the challenges they have faced with preserving their heritage language.  A common theme prevailed: shame. 

Someone who spoke Spanish as a first language felt shame when they pronounced words in English with an accent. They were made fun of as a child and adult, and started to believe that speaking Spanish was bad. 

Many  others felt self-conscious about speaking their heritage language with limited vocabulary and a non-native accent. 

I can relate. 

My Experience with Shame and Language

I grew up hearing Spanish in my family, but I never spoke the language. I really had no interest in learning Spanish until I graduated from college. In my early twenties, I moved to Mexico for about a year and a half. This should have been sufficient time to fully learn a language that I already mostly understood. I saw little growth, however.  

Soon after arriving in Mexico, I was visiting my roommate’s family for Sunday lunch, enjoying the company and conversation when her father suddenly stopped, turned to me and said, “Deja de hablar con ese acento gringo.” This translates to, “Stop talking with that American accent.” 

I was crushed by that comment. I was already trying to speak without an accent. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stopped talking. This wasn’t the only commentary on my lack of Spanish skills while living in Mexico. I felt like everyone was judging me when I spoke Spanish, so I shied away from using my Spanish and I made friends with people who spoke English. 

I want to be clear – these comments were hurtful, but they were few and far between. I heard plenty of comments about how great my  Spanish was or how awesome it was that I moved to Mexico to learn more about my heritage language and culture. My young ears could not drown out the negativity that made me feel like I wasn’t enough or like I didn’t belong.  

A Universal Experience

Many heritage language speakers struggle with shame associated with speaking/not speaking their heritage language. Founder of Spanish Sin Pena, Wendy Ramirez, deeply understood this when she created a space where Latinx leaders can reclaim their language without shame. 

Learning, relearning, or strengthening a language isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary. For heritage speakers, it is a deeply personal process that is tied to our identity and sense of belonging. 

A lot of us grew up with shame around our heritage language. Brené Brown defines shame as, “The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” A fear of not belonging, of not being enough, of not being worthy has kept many people from preserving heritage languages and cultures. 

Where Do We Go From Here?  

The birth of my first child cracked me open and forced me to face all of my shame demons. Would I pass on my insecurities and shame to my child or would I pass on my liberation and courage? 

I decided to raise my son in my heritage language, even though I don’t speak it perfectly. My son will grow up knowing that accents are normal and interesting; they are not bad or a sign of deficiency. I model vulnerability every day when I speak to my son in Spanish. I show him that children and adults learn, make mistakes, ask for help, and grow. He can see that connection, not perfection, is the goal. 

If you are struggling to confidently reclaim your heritage language, remember that the antidote to shame is vulnerability. Berné Brown defines vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability, though scary, leads to opportunity and growth. Language preservation requires vulnerability. It requires us to speak when we are scared, make mistakes, and put ourselves out there. 

It is time to release our shame, embrace our imperfections, and reclaim our languages. 

Your language and culture are your strengths; The Language Preservation Project is your support. Join our mailing list, follow us on social media, and check out our free book guides to start your journey today!