“Am I allowed to swear in this interview?” first year Aubrey Nickle asked. My finger hovered over the voice memo record button.
Regardless of my response, she continued to buzz around her room, speaking German phrases and answering questions, all while folding her laundry. As a German-born speaker, Nickle perfectly demonstrates the results of a 2012 study where the National Institute of Health concluded that bilingual people are better able to concentrate and multitask in distracting environments. . Unwittingly, the setting of Nickle’s interview became a concrete example of these findings.
A native speaker refers to someone who learned a second language in an informal setting, such as within their family. The number of heritage speakers in Washington State alone triple between the 1980s and 2010, talking about modern trends of globalization. As technology connects the world more, we’ve seen an increase in multilingual backgrounds. However, the way heritage speakers learn the language stands in stark contrast to the language instruction students receive at Whitman.
An anonymous first-year Japanese heritage speaker told me how he learned the language.
“My mother spoke to [my younger brother and me] in Japanese, so I took it over. My mom doesn’t speak English very well, so we mostly speak Japanese when we’re together.
Although he grew up in a Japanese household and is able to use conversational Japanese with his family, the anonymous student is currently enrolled in an introductory Japanese course at Whitman, who hopefully he, will help him to read and write in Japanese.
While still learning, the anonymous student explained the difficulties he had in maintaining his Japanese.
“The older I get, the less I use Japanese. It kind of fell for me, but I’m really trying to maintain it.
Language courses are more than a potential credit for cultural pluralism: they offer students the opportunity to reconnect with their heritage in the absence of family. Yet it is not always easy to connect to languages other than English, as English is widely regarded as the “more powerful” Language. EEven outside English-speaking countries, proficiency in English is often a gateway to business and higher education. This poses a particular problem for native speakers: the higher a person goes up the socio-economic ladder, the more distant they may be from their language and ancestry.
Nickle experienced this exact phenomenon from an early age.
“I actually spoke German first before English,” Nickle said, still folding her laundry. “Once I started going to American schools, I just lost it.”
While Nickel is a heritage speaker, the loss of the language has disrupted that heritage. Nickle still has family in Germany today and explained the shame she often feels in their presence, especially when they ask her if she can speak German.
“When I told them no, I felt embarrassed, like I should be able to,” Nickle said.
Nickle is not alone in this embarrassment. It’s a common theme, even for his mother. Her mother is fluent in German, but she struggles with grammatical rules.
Most language experts would agree that immersion is the best way to learn languages. Classroom instruction, despite its shortcomings, is the best thing to do. However, the formalization of the language can sometimes confuse traditional speakers: many begin to wonder if they are speaking their own language “correctly”.
We can attribute Nickle’s feelings of shame and fraud in part to a specific form of bilingual impostor syndrome. Imposter Syndrome refers to a psychological phenomenon where one feels like an “impostor” in their own body, as if the accomplishments they have made are not really their own.
For bilinguals and heritage speakers, impostor syndrome can manifest in many ways. A common feeling is the feeling of unworthiness to claim one’s ancestral identity. Nickle expressed the frustration she feels over her imperfect grades in German class.
“Even if I do well on a quiz, I feel like I should have done better – it just gives me this embarrassment,” Nickle said. “I feel like I can’t fail, like there’s no excuse for it.”
The anonymous freshman began to feel less pressure to be the “perfect” speaker of the language. He sees his Japanese family regularly, which gives him ample opportunity to speak Japanese in a relaxed setting.
It seems important to emphasize this relaxed discourse. Kristine Valencia is a Spanish-speaking visiting student and lecturer who only learned Spanish later in her life. She was okay with that sentiment.
“I grew up in an American host family, so I didn’t speak Spanish,” Valencia said. “After a while of watching shows and listening [Spanish] music, I started to build the foundations.
This informal approach is sometimes the best heritage speakers can achieve when life gets in the way of family and language transmission. Immigrant relatives of heritage speakers often face a combination of financial and social barriers. Nickle explained some of the factors that kept her from continuing to learn German.
“[During my childhood], my mom worked at a job that treated her really badly, and that was a pretty low point in her life. I think she probably didn’t think of teaching me German,” Nickle said.
Complications of linguistic and grammatical rules can complicate the process of learning language in a formalized setting. An even bigger problem can be seen in the lack of representation of languages with historically smaller speaker populations, such as indigenous languages and languages that are simply unrecognized from a Western perspective, such as various African dialects.
Since language classes can become such an important tool for heritage speakers to continue learning and practicing their language, I think it is appropriate to ask more of Whitman’s language curriculum to reflect the student body of school. Curriculum decisions, after all, are decisions whose presence in this world we recognize and celebrate, the priority being the students who temporarily inhabit Walla Walla.