Community Oral Histories

Losing the ability to speak heritage languages

Part 2

This is the second post in a series of guest posts by Robyn Perry, a recent graduate from U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information, about the Aikuma Project – a project to protect and strengthen the world’s existing cultural and linguistic heritage. 


For monolingual English-speaking Americans, it’s hard to imagine the disappearance of English. It’s not a likely scenario. But if you are among the immigrants and refugees who have made your home here in the Bay Area or greater Sacramento area, the prospect of the next generation losing the ability to speak your heritage language is very real.

If you are Mien, this may sound familiar. The first arrivals make their way in the U.S., and a predictable trend sets to work. The immigrants learn some English but maintain fluency primarily in their heritage language. Their children, often serving as translators and liaisons between their parents and schools, doctor’s offices, and others, achieve a strong and admiral bilingualism. The second generation – the grandchildren of the first arrivals – usually speaks only the local language, English, fluently.

This happens for a variety of reasons. It turns out even very young children are sensitive to social pressures and awareness of being different from the “norm,” and often refuse to speak or learn their heritage language. Sometimes their parents also encourage English use only in the home, because they worry juggling multiple languages will cause the children difficulty in school. By the time they are young adults or in their early twenties, many express regrets about not being fluent. Some struggle to communicate with their grandparents.

How did we, as researchers, select a language community? Well, we have sought out language communities where there is a fairly large local population and the language they speak is fairly small on the world scale. This could mean that there are under a million speakers, or just generally that there may be low literacy in the language because it is mostly used orally, even if there are many speakers.

We are interviewing members of several language communities and identifying similarities across them. These languages are more likely to be threatened by English for a host of reasons (little to no presence on the Internet, no written literature that can be used as teaching materials and an emblem of prestige, the need to be physically among speakers in order to engage in the language). We have so far met and interviewed Iu Mien people of Vietnam and Laos, Sindhi speakers of the Sindh province of Pakistan, and Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The struggles of each community are unique, but some common themes are forced displacement from the homeland (in the case of Mien and Sindhi, an earlier displacement created instability that preceded the more recent move to the U.S.), political threats, and a lack of social prestige (some people report not being able to be proud of where they come from).

We have been lucky enough to interview various members of the Mien community in and around the Bay Area. They are helping us to understand the particular struggles of the community that get in the way of their children’s fluency in Mien. Few people outside the community know much about the Mien people. We have heard from some that the lack of knowledge and interest from the outside can make it difficult for Mien children to develop a sense of pride about who they are. Their parents and grandparents, refugees who fled to the U.S., have often simply struggled to survive while recovering from the traumas of fleeing.

The pressure to assimilate comes in many forms. Many Mien have also converted to Christianity, shifting from the traditional Taoist Shamanist religious practices of their Mien predecessors. Interestingly, those who have practiced Bible study are sometimes able to read in Romanized Mien (Mien written in Roman characters, like the ones you are reading, instead of the traditional Chinese script).  Otherwise, it is difficult for those that grew up in American schools to read Mien because they haven’t studied Chinese script.

Adding up all these factors, it becomes clear why it is a struggle for immigrants and refugees to keep speaking their languages. Hopefully, it’s also clear why it is so fundamental to the well-being of the communities that they maintain a connection to their heritage. Reconnecting with one’s language and heritage can boost self-esteem and well-being. At least one study has shown that lower suicide rates exist where the youth conversational competency in the heritage language is higher.[1] We think the Aikuma Project also has the potential to foster cross-cultural understanding in ways that benefit us all.

In the final post with Robyn, we explain how the Aikuma Project might take a bite out of this global problem, how we all stand to benefit, and how you can participate!

[1] Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide by Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde. Retrieved from

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