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My Experience (Sort of) as a Heritage Speaker

By: Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using my newfound free time to improve my French writing skills. I’ve realized that, despite speaking French at home for my whole life, I know little about accents and spellings. I learned French orally, by listening to my mother, who is fluent in French. So when I hear phrases like “ah bon,” which translates roughly to “really” or “is that so,” I think of them as units. I don’t register that “ah bon” is in reality a two word phrase. 

Suffice it to say, then, that my writing is pretty abysmal. (The very short French story that appears in this edition of the Courant required a lot of spell-checking on my part.) When I first tried to write “ah bon,” I spelled it “abon.” My mother laughed. I’ve had similar experiences with a number of words and phrases.

Of course, we all have experiences like these in English as well. I spent years of my life saying “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” But by and large, I can be confident that what I hear in English matches what I’ve learned to write. Not so in French.

So I’m at a point now where I’m trying to retrain my French side. Instead of hearing words like someone who knows nothing about spelling, I’m trying to hear them in fresh, new ways, as combinations of letters and accents.

This process has been extremely frustrating. I take Spanish as my language at school, and while my French comprehension easily exceeds my Spanish comprehension, I was trained in Spanish to write and spell from the start. So I’m in the bizarre position of being better at writing in my third language than in my second.

Around a week ago, I started to feel discouraged. Even my speaking isn’t as good as I want it to be: my recall far exceeds my recognition, so I find myself understanding my mother perfectly when she says “moineau” (sparrow), but failing to call up the word when I want to say it myself.

Then everything changed when I started to read about heritage speakers.

I’ve known about them for years, especially in the context of Spanish. Kids who have heard Spanish their whole lives still take Spanish classes. I just had never connected this knowledge to my personal experiences with French.

Everything I’ve read about the struggles faced (and advantages enjoyed) by heritage speakers matches my experience perfectly. I speak fluidly enough and understand everything I hear, but I struggle with spelling and vocabulary recall. The shoe fits.

The only problem: I’m not actually French. Neither is my mother.

So do I count? Well, it turns out this is a subject of significant disagreement in the linguistic community. Some linguists define a heritage speaker strictly as someone who grows up speaking one first language with their parents and then must learn a new first language at school. That wasn’t me. I grew up with both English and French.

Other linguists still argue that a heritage speaker need not speak the language, but must have a cultural connection to it, especially through his or her parents. Again, not me.

But there’s a third definition. UCLA expert Olga Kagan explains that a heritage speaker is “a speaker who actually has some proficiency. Which means the language is spoken in the home, which means the speaker has participated or listened or heard a lot of this language.” Well, that one’s me.

So I guess I am a heritage speaker of French after all—by one definition. This realization has helped me come to terms with the French-language struggles I face. I realize now that my difficulties are common and well-understood, and I’m excited to keep working. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to spell “saperlipopette.”

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