This past year, I interviewed young adult heritage language learners about their experience in learning their heritage language. They shared their failures and successes in attempting to learn their heritage language. While I was fascinated to hear about their language learning experiences and stories, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences in more detail with each discussion. Through their stories, I began to question my claim to be a heritage language learner. They are actively learning their heritage language. I am not and have not.
Therefore, it would not seem strange for me to question my own claim. Am I a heritage learner? A heritage language learner (HLL) is someone is who a member of a linguistic minority and then some. I have found from my investigation into HLLs that there is no sole definition to encompass all individuals who claim to be heritage language learners. One broad approach to defining a HLL is in terms of a learner’s membership with a specific ethno-cultural community; the links between their cultural and linguistic heritage (Fishman, 2001). Van Deusen Scholl (2003) adds to this broad definition by stating that those who “have been raised with a strong cultural connection to a particular language through family interaction” are language learners “…with a heritage motivation” (p. 222). A more detailed characterisation is offered by Carreira (2004) who lists three essential criteria for a person to identify as a heritage language learner: the learner’s place in the HL community, their personal connection to the HL, and heritage culture through their family background. Moreover, heritage language knowledge can vary depending on the strength and degree of their involvement in their heritage community.
Based on any of these definitions, I would seem to fit the HLL mould. However, these definitions are ever-evolving, depending on how people claim their heritage membership and on those who accept the heritage membership claims of others. In other words, my claim to my heritage community feels true for me, but to others in the community, I might be seen as an outsider. My heritage identity is challenged.
Hence, a heritage identity is hard to define by those who research it and even harder to define by those who claim to have one. It is more than just having a linguistically constructed identity. It is negotiated across different language settings (home versus school), social contexts (family versus friends), and power imbalances (teacher versus learner). The negotiations and the potential challenges in claiming a heritage identity can make people doubtful of their heritage assertions, especially when they have little to no language competence in their heritage language.
Thus, it wasn’t too surprising for me when one or two of the participants in my study used the word “imposter” to describe their heritage identity. There seems to be this underlying feeling by some HLLs that they are playing a “cruel trick” on people about their heritage identity. The questions they are faced with are: How can they claim the heritage when they don’t speak the language or when they are separated from the “homeland” by more than more than 2 generations or by inter-cultural marriage?
The word “imposter” pushed me to reflect on whether this word actually defines me. I completely understood what the participants meant by claiming to be imposters to the heritage identity. I have first-hand experience as an “imposter”. Regardless of how confident I am in my claim to be East Indian, I don’t speak my heritage language and what I do know of the language is limited to being receptive to high frequency core vocabulary, for example, thanni = water, ama = mother, appa = father, vanakkam = hello.
Not long ago, my feeling of being an imposter hit a high point when I was sent a link to a speech made by a Member of Parliament in Canada. Rathika Sitsabaiesan is Tamil Canadian and she made her speech in Tamil. I was completely impressed by her ability to speak fluently in Tamil. I was chuffed that this happened in Canada where Tamil is a non-official language, and I was envious because I wished I had the ability to speak like her. She represented; I don’t. Then I stopped for a second and realised that I do. My heritage identity is a cultural identity. I identify with the community: it’s about religion, cultural nuances, and people, even though I am primarily an English speaker.
Maybe “imposter” is too strong a word to describe the feeling that my participants and I have towards our heritage claim. We don’t mean to lump others like us into this categorisation. We know that feeling like “imposters” with respect to our respective heritage identities is at times a true characterisation of how we feel and how others make us feel. It’s part of our reality. However, we also strive to have another way to describe ourselves. For me, I think my heritage identity means being a heritage speaker with very minimal language ability. My claim is true and my desire to learn my heritage is strong. With this deeper understanding, maybe I’m an imposter no more.
Carreira, M. (2004). Seeking explanatory adequacy: A dual approach to understanding the term “heritage language learner”. Heritage Language Journal, 2. Retrieved from http://www.heritagelanguages.org/
Fishman, J. A. (2001). 300-plus years of heritage language education in the United States. In J. K. Peyton, D. A. Ranard, & S. McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource (pp. 81–98). Washington, DC, & McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Van Deusen-Scholl, N. (2003). Toward a definition of heritage language: Sociopolitical and pedagogical considerations. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(3), 211-230.