Losing touch with your heritage language

Patrick Stanak says that he is gradually losing touch with Polish, his heritage language. His parents and his older sister, who were all born in Poland, are native speakers of the language, though Stanak was born in Canada. With no extended family living in Canada to talk to beside his immediate relatives, Stanak says his proficiency in Polish has started to decline.

“Sometimes, I can’t really spit out words. I will, like, start with Polish and then slowly mix in English and then by the end of the sentence, I will be speaking in English. It is difficult for my parents because it reduces all the conversations we have to surface level. Nothing is ever very deep,” said the second-year business management student.

Losing one’s first language while growing up in a country where another language is predominantly spoken is not new. The loss of the mother tongue is known as a phenomenon called first language attrition, in which children of immigrants often lose their family’s first language due to the fact that they are exposed to English in their everyday lives, whereas they are only exposed to their heritage language at home.

Struggling to speak

Stanak, who went to Poland last year, said he struggled to talk to his grandparents even though he could understand them. But he also said that his grandparents were understanding of his situation.

“My dad will always say that my Polish is so bad. And my grandparents will always have a hard time understanding my Polish but they are always pretty patient,” says Stanak. “I think the most frustrating thing about this is, that people don’t know how much I understand.”

Stanak said that his parents sometimes think that he is too “lazy” to speak in Polish, and that his slow decline in speaking Polish is like a cycle: as he receives negative feedback, he becomes discouraged to speak in his first language with his family.

While he was growing up, Stanak predominantly spoke Polish. He watched shows on Treehouse and he said that he did not have problems speaking English in school. But slowly, as English became his dominant language, Stanak found himself thinking in English which, for him, meant that when someone spoke to him in Polish, he automatically translated it to English in his head.

Stanak now finds that when he speaks in his first language, his Canadian accent seeps into the Polish words, which is a common attribute amongst children who have grown up speaking both English and their first language as English becomes dominant.

Maggie Tse, a second-year social work student, said that she grew up speaking Cantonese at home and had difficulty with speaking English when she first started school.

She also said that she was uncomfortable with speaking Cantonese at certain points in public.

“I used to go to Chinese school classes and would speak in class. It would soon become clear from others noticing that I had a kind of accent on my Chinese as a result of speaking English so much, so I ended up being really self-conscious because of that.”

However, Tse said that she does not shy away from speaking in Cantonese when needed as she is “right on the edge of being comfortable” with it.

The science behind language loss

In bilingual children, it is often found that the language they speak at home is not the language represented in society, said Silvina Montrul, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a linguist with expertise in second language acquisition.

Montrul said that if children do not get sufficient exposure to their first language after age three, they start to gradually lose touch with it. The loss of the first language commonly happens when they are exposed to another language more often than their native language.

“The children do not have an opportunity to use the language and therefore lose the ability to use that language,” said Montrul. “And this is evident when they start forgetting words. And then they have difficulty conjugating verbs, and the genders of the language such as those in nouns.”

Montrul said that children develop a “receptive ability” as they understand their first language but they cannot speak in it, as they have been exposed to the language from a very young age. Bilingual individuals can often have interactions in their head from their two different languages as they adopt structures from both languages.

The best way to re-acquire one’s first language would be to spend a year or two in their country of origin rather than to go to classes or read books, advises Montrul.  As first language speakers are not used to the academic aspect of acquiring their heritage language because they have already acquired the structural aspect of their language, first language speakers just need practise and time with their language.

Stanak added that he would take a class to relearn Polish or even to go to Poland for some time if he gets the chance.

“I am so horrible at Polish but the fact that I can understand as much as I can, puts things into perspective when I see people who are struggling with English. It lets me know that I should not underestimate them or their understanding and their ability.”