I really like the stories in the article “It Takes A Classroom To Learn The Family Language” at NPR.org. From my perspective, there were many aspects of language learning that the article covered that are not usually covered in most articles about language learning.
I like that first-generation Americans were included in this discussion. I think they are often overlooked in the discussion, but are also a special category of language learners. I think it’s also important to distinguish between different groups of first-generation Americans when it comes to language learning.
Some first-generation Americans move to the U.S. before school age, so their experience in their mother language is practically equivalent to the experience of second-generation Americans. They benefit from heritage language classes (some begin lessons as children) and language support at home.
There are some first-generation Americans who move to the U.S. while they are in elementary or middle school. These first-generation Americans can lose their mother language faster because of the sudden emphasis on English when they arrive in America. They need to take English as a second language classes in school. At home, it is often thought that since these children have received schooling in their mother tongue and in their home country, they do not need to improve their mother tongue.
From the article, it is also very clear that one cannot get away from one’s mother language. There is an incentive for heritage language learners to learn and understand the language due to family connections. They also already have an understanding of the culture because it was learned as part of their daily life. Although one can always come back to learning the language and culture, it is important to remember that people will not always be there, especially elders. This this another level of support to learn one’s mother tongue.
I have experienced the ebb and flow of language proficiency. I began learning my mother tongues (Mandarin and Taiwanese) from family in Taiwan. While attending school in the U.S., I learned Mandarin mostly from my parents at home and attended English as a second language classes. In Taiwan, my English ability slipped. My speaking skills deteriorated, but my reading skills seemed to stay the same, probably because I kept reading the books I had in the U.S. When I had more education in the U.S, the deterioration of my Chinese skills was different. My speaking ability stayed pretty consistent, but my reading and writing ability decreased. I am sure this was due to spending more time on improving my English abilities. I also had to deal with learning French for my language requirement in school. Strangely, it was during this time that my Taiwanese improved.
One thing I have learned is that it takes effort to maintain language proficiency. I have found that I never really forgot to read or write Chinese. My abilities have drastically improved with focused effort. I read news from sources in Taiwan and in the U.S. Some days it is possible that I only browse websites from Taiwan. Language changes as well, so constant exposure is necessary to keep up with modern terms and catchphrases. It really does take consistent effort to maintain one’s languages. But the benefits are worth it.