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Blog post

Is Language a Currency?

April 11, 2022
By Nina Le

I remember that moment in a community-led Vietnamese heritage language school here in Montreal. It was my first day of volunteering, and I was standing in front of my small class. To break the ice, I asked the question I had asked hundreds of times before in my ESL classes; however, this time I changed the last bit to fit the context. I asked, “Why are you learning Vietnamese?” 

And that was my pitfall. 

In contrast to my ESL students, who were always eager to share the reasons why they decided to study English, my four teenage heritage language learners gave me blank stares. None of them could answer why they should study their heritage language. One younger student finally uttered in English, “coz my mom put me here.” A few moments passed, and before I could think of something to say, one older student blurted out, “actually, I don’t even know why I’m here. To waste my time.” Another said, “I’d rather learn more English, or Spanish, no one speaks Vietnamese here anyway.” 

I was mortified. What should I do now? What should I do now? was the question that kept repeating in my mind. I had always loved teaching English, as every student seemed to have a story to tell. But at that very moment, I realized that this would probably only happen in the English class. Regardless of the reason they found themself in my English classroom, chances are, deep down my Vietnamese students all desired to speak the language of the “stronger” people (in other words, the native English speakers). Perhaps in their eyes, native English speakers could go anywhere around the world without being regarded as second-class citizen like native speakers of other certain languages, such as Vietnamese.

The quietness of my students in the Vietnamese heritage class spoke volumes to me. It screamed that our language was not valuable, that our culture was inferior, and that being Vietnamese was more like a curse in this world rather than something to celebrate and embrace. It seemed to my students that it was a worthless identity, and it would be more beneficial to adopt the identity of a native English speaker. 

Their comments stayed with me for a long time. Since when did we start treating languages as if they were soulless currencies? Since when was it so easy to toss a language aside to adopt another? Why does adopting English (or French) have to be at the cost of our heritage language, and to an extent, our culture?  

I’ve always known how fragile immigrants’ heritage languages and cultures are. But it was only when I started teaching my own heritage language did I truly feel how easy it was to lose something so close to home. A simple eye roll from the teacher when a student utters their heritage language in class is enough to shatter their cultural identity. And when your language and culture are being put down long enough, you start to believe in it. 

Going through the experience of teaching my own heritage language changed me as a teacher in the most fundamental way. I became hyper aware of the language I teach and its associations, whether it is English or Vietnamese. As all languages are situated in particular historical contexts, I strongly believe that teaching a language involves acknowledging how the class content could impact students’ cultural identities. Now I’m bringing that mentality with me to my ESL class. I am a language teacher, not a currency exchanger. My students’ cultural identities should be at the heart of what I teach, what I look for when designing activities, and how I deliver lessons.

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