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Why We Stopped Speaking: Exploring Where Your Family’s Heritage Language Was Lost & How to Revitalize It


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Like many of us, I have spent the last year and few months only dreaming of exotic travel that has the ability to immerse me and my travel companions culturally. It has only been through conversation and books such as Jennifer Anton’s “Under the Light of the Italian Moon” that I have been able to do so.

I’m longing to hop the pond again as the world safely opens back up.

I’m American. While my roots are far reaching throughout Europe, overtime, the recipes that bring your taste buds right to a restaurant in Urbino have been slightly altered. The exotic languages you love listening to while enjoying that meal were lost quickly, within one generation, of my great grandparents’ arrival.

It has been through my own education in history, historical retellings such as the named book above, and conversations with my grandparents that I have begun to understand why.

Have You Ever Asked Yourself Why You Are Monolingual?

Growing up, I was taught that I live in the great melting pot. Yet, where I grew up specifically it was difficult to feel this was true.

One of the many things that held me back from feeling such was the way my ears perked up in excitement when I heard a language other than English. Why was this such a rarity in a country of great immigration?

As Rumbaut and Massey so eloquently put it, “The great American paradox is that while the United States historically has been characterized by great linguistic diversity propelled by immigration, it has also been a zone of language extinction in which immigrant tongues die out to be replaced by monolingual English”.

Upon speaking to my grandparents, I was able to understand the personal perspective behind such historical genres that we read.

Whether it was acclimation to “American life”, relocation away from family who spoke your native tongue, or social political forces, it seems that research and lived experiences point in the same direction: immigration drives language diversity, and in historical times where immigration was halted, we became more monolingual on the whole.

While cultural aspects may survive for a few generations, Calvin Veltman concluded that in the absence of immigration, all non-English languages would eventually die out, usually quite rapidly.

So for myself, being a 3rd generation American, it’s no wonder I do not walk into my grandparents home saying ciao, hola or hallo even though their parents were Italian, German, and Spanish.

While we await our next travel experiences, I encourage you to discover why you’re monolingual, if you are, instead of accepting this as a norm and challenge it!

Discover Where Your Origin Language Died

Ask an older relative. The closer you can get to the time a specific line of your family immigrated, the better.

Use Census Records. Prior to speaking to my grandparents, I scoured Ancestry.com and other public or church records to travel my ancestry “across the pond”.

I was able to see my great grandparents' response to social and political shifts as my Great Grandfather adjusted his name to be more “Americanized” from Ciro to Jerry. This is what spurred such a conversation with my grandfather.

In the absence of resources, let your imagination wander. If you hit a true dead end, let your mind wander based on the simplistic facts you do know.

In the name of wanting to revitalize your origin language or simply learn a few phrases, assume your roots are true (or test them through a DNA website) and choose an origin language to explore that simply sparks interest.

How to Revitalize Your Origin Language

Speak It! From Day 1…

As we like to say at Fluent in 3 Months.

Use it in your home, with your loved ones, and your children. Pick up a few phrases where possible. Let your ancestors live on through the way you start dinner each night, Mangia! Maybe make a family game night and only communicate using the target language.

The possibilities are endless to introduce your ancestral language into your home.

Join a Language Community

I am always amazed by the many locations our Fluent in 3 Months Challengers join from.

Through connections in a language community, you may find someone is learning a language because they are relocated for work … right near an ancestor’s hometown!

In such a digitally connected world, and coming out of a time when so many relied on those digital connections for socialization, I encourage you to take this leap and find a community or native speakers.

iTalki and Preply are popular resources in the language community.

Download the Apps, Listen to Podcasts, anything you can do on your commute to work or while out for a short walk. Every little bit helps. I personally really enjoy *Coffee Break Italian on the Radio Lingua Network to ensure I don’t lose the basic Italian I do know. Even quick check in’s on DuoLingo go a long way.

Read a Book with Native Language Insertion

One of the many things I loved about Jennifer Antron’s “Under the Light of the Italian Moon” was that, while it was predominantly in English, it inserted phrases in Italian that brought back memories of being in Italy or left me turning to the glossary.

Lightly inserted language like this kept the storyline flowing well, added to the characterization, and immersed me while brushing up on my Italian. Much like we learn the worlds and language built by authors in fiction, like Harry Potter…

Picking up phrases from our most beloved foreign-language speaking characters can be a great starting point for book lovers and introverts.

Book Your Next Trip

Even if you currently feel safer stateside, I’m always reminded that there are cities where families who immigrated together and they have held onto their roots quite well.

Helena, Georgia … Leavenworth, Washington … St. Augustine, Florida … Venice, California… Frankenmuth, Michigan … There are many cities in the U.S. with standing strong influence in the U.S.

If I’ve learned anything the last year, it’s that the cultural experiences we are seeking do not need to be an ocean away. They can begin by exploring who we are and revitalizing our ancestral roots through the power of becoming more than monolingual.

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Ashley Furgione

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