Living Through Language


Photo Illustration by Sam Ko and Alison Oh

Alison Oh

Chinese idioms, or chengyu, are difficult to learn, culturally complex and grammatically irregular. For most students of Chinese, they’re a nightmare. But as her classmates groaned at the sight of a new list of characters to memorize, Taia Cheng ’19 tapped her pencil on her desk, eager to learn each new phrase and its unique meaning.

“I was really excited when we started learning idioms this year,” Cheng said. “They’re so concise and effective, but they’re also so poetic. Both of my grandpas love idioms, and they really enjoy hearing about the ones I learn in class. We even make jokes about them.”

Cheng, whose family speaks Mandarin Chinese, is a heritage language learner, defined by the Center for Applied Linguistics as a person studying a language who has some proficiency in or a cultural connection to that language through family, community or country of origin.

While the majority of students on campus take classes in foreign languages with which they have no prior connection, 20.1 percent of the 289 students who responded to a Chronicle poll said they study a language they have ties to already.

Many heritage language learners said that they started taking language classes in order to communicate more comfortably with their families and to reinforce those personal ties.

That’s why Cheng, whose relatives speak Mandarin, Cantonese or a dialect from Suzhou, said she decided to enroll in Chinese.

“I wanted to be able to better communicate with my great-grandma, although she recently passed away, and with my grandparents in general,” Cheng said.

Similarly, Naomi Ogden ’20 explained that learning Spanish at school has helped her understand her mother, who immigrated from Mexico as a child and is fluent in Spanish.

“Learning Spanish at school, I feel like I get more of my family’s inside jokes,” Ogden said. “There are words in Spanish that we don’t have in English, and being able to use them now, I feel like I can communicate better with my family.”

Even beyond practical benefits like communication, students credited their language classes with helping them better connect to their culture. For heritage language learners, language and culture are inextricably woven together, Jasper Wong ’19 said.

Wong, who speaks Cantonese, said that he decided to start taking Mandarin classes at school for both practical and cultural reasons, citing both the utility of learning Mandarin, the most commonly spoken Chinese dialect, and his desire to learn more about his roots.

Wong pointed to the emphasis that his teachers placed on learning about Chinese culture as particularly helpful.

“[My teacher] talks a lot about the culture and stories relating to the language, so I think that I’ve learned more about China and Chinese [culture,]” Wong said. “The cultural side of it is probably more interesting to me than other students because I actually can experience or have experienced what we’re talking about in language class.”

Studying culture and language simultaneously is one of the world languages department’s primary goals, said upper school World Languages Department Head Jerome Hermeline.

“There is a mutual understanding and a shared principle in our department that a language is learned through its culture and culture through its language,” Hermeline said. “Grammar and vocabulary are tools used in order to explore different cultural perspectives than our own, by studying and discussing authentic sources.”

Not only do heritage language learners gain an understanding of their broader cultural roots, but they also gain the ability to relate more intimately to their personal family histories.

While both of Opal Lambert’s ’19 parents are fluent English speakers, Lambert said that Spanish is still key to her personal identity. Learning Spanish at school has helped her get in touch with her maternal relatives’ unique experiences in the United States as Mexican immigrants.

“My grandmother talks a lot about the discrimination [she’s faced] for being Mexican, so for her, being able to speak Spanish is something she’s proud of,” Lambert said. “Learning Spanish is something that helps me connect to her and understand her personal experience.”

Some students said there is a stigma against learning heritage languages at school because of the belief that these learners have an unfair advantage over their peers. 95 percent of poll respondents thought that such students had an advantage in the classroom, and 36 percent of respondents thought that the advantage was unfair.

Middle and upper school world languages teacher Kun Li said that while such students usually have a deeper cultural understanding of Chinese, they don’t come into the classroom with an advanced understanding of grammar or usage. Li said that having these students in her classroom actually helps her other students learn about Chinese culture and traditions.

“The advantage that heritage students bring to the class is their knowledge about the Chinese culture,” Li said. “When we discuss [Chinese] food, for example, they can explain it to their classmates.”

On the other hand, Mason Rodriguez ’18 said that he understood why his peers would think that he had an unfair advantage. Rodriguez started taking Spanish classes at school at the encouragement of his parents, who were not able to speak Spanish with him or his siblings at home.

“I think people definitely do think that we have an advantage, and I think that we do, at least while we’re just beginning to learn the language,” Rodriguez said. “During the first couple of years, we probably have had more exposure to it. But, I do think that the advantage quickly expires as we progress with the language.”

The school offers no classes specifically tailored for heritage language learners, but heritage speakers who already possess a degree of proficiency in a language often skip introductory courses and enroll in advanced classes.

Anthony Khaiat ’19, whose dad is French, said that he specifically chose to take advanced courses because he already had a basic understanding of the language.

“It wasn’t something completely unfamiliar to me when I first started taking it,” Khaiat said. “I got used to speaking French pretty quickly, and I already understood some of the grammar concepts, so that helped me a lot.”

Chinese speakers can also enroll in Chinese IC, a course for 7th grade students with prior exposure to Chinese. According to Li, although many of the enrolled students are heritage language learners, Chinese IC is a class open to anyone with prior knowledge of the language, regardless of their personal or cultural connection to it.

“Anyone who can converse in Chinese fluently but has little knowledge about reading and writing will be enrolled in 1C,” Li said. “The students are at the same level, and they don’t feel pressured by others who seem to speak much more and better than them.”

Ultimately, no matter their level of fluency, heritage language learners said that they gain more from their language classes than just a simple knowledge of grammar rules and vocabulary words.

“Spanish is a part of my family,” Lambert said. “That connection with the language allows for a basis to understand who we are and where we’re from. That’s why I decided to take it at school.”