January Reflection: Teaching a Heritage Language as a Parent and Professional

By Selma Erlandson, Português Plus teacher and parent

I have always taught.  In Sunday school when I was 15, during my High school internship and have never stopped, both in Brazil and here in the United States. I have taught Portuguese and Literature, English as a second language, Portuguese as a second language, but it was only in 2015 through ProGente Connections and Portuguese Plus that I started teaching Portuguese as a Heritage Language (PHL).

This is an area of teaching and learning that fascinates and intrigues me at the same time because it is still a field that is still being worked on. By this I mean that there is no manual on how to teach our children to be proficient in their language of inheritance. Taking into consideration that language is a living organism and is constantly evolving, teaching a child PHL means helping him improve what he has already learned at home.

The absence of such instruction manual for teaching the PHL caused me a certain frustration both as teacher and mother of four boys who in my mind could perhaps never speak my native language. It was in August of 2018 when I participated in the VII World Conference on Teaching Portuguese that I heard something that renewed my hope. The best thing we can do to help our children learn a heritage language is to expose them to the utmost in such a language.

Studies show that children who have had constant exposure to a second language will be able, when they grow up, to perfectly reproduce the sounds of that language and even if they have stopped speaking it, they will be able to very easily "re-learn it". This is due to a phonetic memory possibly acquired only in childhood.

Speaking, repeating, writing are undoubtedly important factors in learning a heritage language; however, listening to that language actually happening, evolving, can be what will guarantee our children the learning and speaking of our so loved Portuguese.