To learn any language takes an awful lot of motivation. So if the child of an immigrant is very motivated to learn the language of origin, or heritage language as it is often described, because he or she wants to talk to family members, that’s great. However, if they’re not motivated to do so then they should just be left alone.

I don’t think there’s any particular value in having someone learn the language of their ancestors rather than some other language.

My Language History

My parents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were German-speaking in a Jewish community in Moravia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, or at least Moravia, became Czechoslovakia.

They spoke mostly German, but at some point they started going to Czech schools once Czechoslovakia was formed, so they spoke both of those languages, but German was more natural for them.

They left in ’39 before Hitler came in and went to Sweden, which is where I was born. I spoke Swedish for the first five years of my life from 1945 to 1950, then we immigrated to Canada and my parents decided that we were going to speak English.

I always spoke English with my parents and I never had any sense that my communication with them was in any way inhibited. There was no pressure to learn German or Czech.

If anything, my parents wanted me to learn French, which we studied at school without any great success. They were quite happy that we spoke English because we lived in Canada.

Placing Blame

I once spoke with someone who was mad at his father for not forcing him to speak Dutch, his heritage language, as a child. Well, learn it now then I say. How can you blame your parents? In reality, back in those days he probably wasn’t very interested.

In my own case, I might say I wish my mother had insisted that I continue taking piano lessons. I didn’t want to do it and so, eventually, after fighting day after day around the piano she let me quit.

There’s no point in hindsight now to say that I wish she had forced me to carry on. It was just too much effort because I didn’t want to do it. I had developed my own interests.

Insofar as languages are concerned, the first language besides English that I learned to speak well was French, followed by Chinese and Japanese and then Spanish and German. It had nothing to do with whatever might be considered the language of my ancestors.

My wife, who was born in Macau and whose mother is Costa Rican, spoke Cantonese best as a child, but the language of her mother was Spanish. So now, in terms of our kids, which ancestral language should we have forced them to learn? As it was we couldn’t even get them to learn French, which I tried very hard to do. The more we tried, the more they resisted.

It wasn’t until my son Mark had the opportunity to live in different foreign countries as a professional hockey player that he became interested in learning languages.

Interest is Key

I think language learning is something you do if you’re interested.

If the parents can create an environment where the children are genuinely interested in learning the language, then they might be able to pull it off. In many cases they won’t and, in some cases, they might actually turn the kid off learning that language.

To me, the culture is not in the DNA. We have immigrants here in Canada from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico. Those people are also mixed, so is the heritage language Spanish? Is it Arabic if they’re of Lebanese origin?

I know Lebanese-origin Mexicans, Jewish Mexicans and Japanese Brazilians. What’s the heritage language? How many generations are you going to go back? The reality is that, in all probability, within a few generations in Canada all those people will intermarry and only speak English. By the third generation, two-thirds of the people have spouses who are not of the same ethnic group, so English simply takes over.

People get very moralistic about this. It’s just so obviously a good thing to learn the heritage language. It’s part of your heritage. It’s diversity and blah, blah, blah. If people do it, that’s fine, nothing wrong with it, but if they don’t like doing it that’s equally fine. Let people learn the languages that they’re interested in.