A young Latina mother I was interviewing once laughed uncomfortably as she described her sons’ embarrassment when put on the spot by older Latinos.
They would speak to her sons in Spanish, before quickly adding in the same language, “How awful! You don’t understand me in Spanish?” Her sons would then sheepishly reply – in Spanish – “Yes, I understand. But I don’t speak it.”
Despite our different backgrounds, her story hit close to home.
I grew up in Arizona as the child of Chinese immigrants, learning to navigate the language and cultural currents that surrounded me inside and outside of the home. Reclaiming my Chinese language and understanding its role in my life has been a lifelong journey. At the same time, I was also immersed in the bilingualism of the U.S.-Mexico border, where Spanish and English are both used but the power and politics of language always linger in the background.
I’ve also witnessed these dynamics in my extended family, where my husband’s Latin American roots bring with them the expectation of Spanish fluency. While he is fluent, many children of Latino immigrants are not.
I’ve studied these issues for many years as a linguist, and I’m currently exploring them in my current book project on how language helps shape Latino identity in Washington, D.C.
What I’ve learned upends assumptions that heritage languages are “lost” from one generation to the next because of a simple lack of motivation or children rejecting their roots. My research paints a more complex picture that delves into how we understand – or misunderstand – the bilingualism of heritage speakers.
Heritage speakers are people who, although they may have learned their parents’ native language at home, no longer speak it in the same way as a traditional native speaker because of growing up in a bilingual environment.
Their language abilities are often misunderstood both within their cultural communities and by outsiders. That’s what happened with Celia’s sons: Other community members assumed they couldn’t speak Spanish, even though they could understand and respond in the language.