At the age of 15, my family and I went to Mexico when a relative passed away. We had been across the border a few times in my childhood, but this was the first time I was at an age I could remember the experience: the church service, the restaurant we ate at after, the house we stayed at, and the border crossing. Suddenly, I was aware of so much about myself during this border crossing. I was aware I was darker than my parents, perhaps from playing soccer year-round under the Texas sun. I was also aware I didn’t speak Spanish, regardless of hearing it in my home, on telenovelas, and the music I listened to. 

I went back and forth in my head whether they would think I was Mexican or a U.S. citizen based on my appearance or the language I did or didn’t speak. Juanes played in the car as we approached the patrol officers, and I asked my parents to change it to something else out of fear. In my mind, because my skin was a few shades darker than my parents and I was listening to Spanish music, I would not be let into the U.S., even though the second I opened my mouth, they would know I wasn’t from Mexico. We crossed back to the U.S., and the things I was suddenly aware of stayed at that border crossing. 

We returned home to my bubble with other 2nd and 3rd-generation Latinos who looked like me and didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything and was content with my grandparents speaking Spanish and me responding to them in English. It wasn’t until I reached college that I wanted to learn to speak Spanish. At first, I wanted to learn because I thought it would give me an advantage in the job world if I knew two languages. Then I started questioning my belonging to the Latino community because, regardless of how much I wanted to learn, I would never be a native Spanish speaker. It felt like I was clinging to my mother’s immigrant story as a pass to let me into a club.

When I studied abroad in Spain, and people would ask why I was able to understand them, I’d say, “Mi mama es de Mexico,” as if I was flashing my Latina badge. So in my early twenties, the gray space of my identity I became aware of crossing the border that day returned. 

The mixed bag of shame for not speaking my heritage language and fear that it was too late to learn has stuck with me all these years. I’ve come across many conversations and stories of people with a similar story as mine, bravely sharing the shame they’ve felt and the journey to overcome and reclaim what was lost. 

4 Takeaways in “Tips for trying to learn a ‘heritage language.‘”

Shereen Marisol Meraji from NPR shared a conversation with Maria Carreira, a professor of Spanish. She recently started a program called the Heritage Language Exchange, and before that, Maria co-founded the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. These are the four takeaways from this conversation for my fellow heritage language learners. 

# 1- “You’re ahead of the game, and you probably know a lot more than you give yourself credit for.”

This was a great reminder that the knowledge of Spanish I have from watching Mar y Mar and Maria la del Barrio is a great foundation and a great place to start. It’s evident when I go to Spanish-speaking countries, and I’m not entirely lost. It’s also probably what my grandpa was trying to remind me when I told him I wanted to study in Spain, and he made me say it in Spanish. The fact that I could spend a few minutes searching for the vocabulary showed I have a foundation to build on!

My first trip back to Mexico since I was 15. (Xochimilco, 2016)

#2 – “Acknowledge what you’re up against.”

There is more to work through than learning vocabulary and conjugations. The shame of not speaking my heritage language has caused barriers and a lack of confidence in the strong foundation I have. The fear of saying something wrong or sounding funny feels like an actual wall I have to climb over in my mind to access the knowledge I do have. I have to remind myself that language loss isn’t my failure but the result of linguistic oppression and systemic barriers. 

No. 3 – “Know your strengths”

My strength is in listening and understanding Spanish, which I love! I find joy in hearing family members tell stories and quote my grandparents or relatives who have passed in my heritage language. I feel connected to them and a part of the story. 

No. 4 – “Spend time thinking about what you want to do with your heritage language.”

My goals for learning Spanish have shifted over the years. I regret that I didn’t get to have conversations in Spanish with my grandparents before they passed away, but that doesn’t mean I should give up trying to learn. I hope to pass on what I know, however insignificant it may seem, whether it’s the Spanish nursery rhymes my mom sings to any baby she meets or the lyrics to my favorite Selena songs. I hope to focus more on connecting to my heritage language than perfecting it.

Language learning for heritage language learners is not solely about language acquisition. We come with a wealth of knowledge and the complexity of shame. What has your language journey looked like? Have you set some goals for yourself? 

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Also, check out the Talking to Grandma Podcast to hear more stories of people on the language preservation journey!