It Takes A Classroom to Learn The Family Language

I started an Arabic class last month after years of vowing to learn the language half of my family speaks–but that my sister and I never learned. I wrote about the experience and what it means to be a heritage language learner for NPR’s Code Switch blog:

The desire to reinforce ethnic identity through language is a feeling that I and many other first-, second- and third-generation Americans understand well. My half-Palestinian mother grew up in Lebanon and speaks Arabic; for various reasons, I don’t. She says teaching me and my sister against constant interruptions of “What did you say?” from our English-only-speaking father became too stressful. As proud as I am of my Arab heritage, without a linguistic marker to link me to the community, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable identifying as an Arab, at least not compared to my cousins who grew up in the Middle East.

Without Arabic, little else about me is Arab. I don’t dress or look like an Arab (feel free to rely on stereotypes for this one — trust me, I don’t fit them). I can’t dance the dabke. I eat hummus and have a scarab (a small turquoise beetle amulet thought to bring good luck) in my purse, sure, but without Arabic, can I even call myself an Arab?

Like Alvarez, I responded to the feelings of ethnic inadequacy by choosing to buckle down and finally learn the language I felt I was lacking. I decided last month to enroll in an Arabic course at a local school — not just to be able to better communicate with my family, but to somehow legitimize my Arab-ness. She and I are what linguists call heritage language learners, and we’re just two of the many young adults turning to language as a better way to understand our identities.

Read the full piece here.