Connecting with Heritage through Language
Published: February 12, 2019
This is generally one of the first questions I am asked when people find out I speak French. They seem surprised I didn’t choose a more common language in my area, like Spanish. They are even more surprised by my answer - “Because I’m Lebanese.”
Now, I should clarify. Both my parents and myself were born and raised in Minnesota. My parents are monolingual English speakers. My great-grandparents came to this country from Lebanon, and my grandfather was the first born in the states. My grandfather’s family clung to their culture and identity by being active members in the Lebanese Catholic church in Minneapolis - the same church where my parents were married, where I grew up, and where I was recently married.
French is the second (recognised) language of Lebanon, a result of close ties with France since the 13th century, and France’s occupation of the country after World War I. Since I did not have the opportunity to study Lebanese at school, French was the next best way for me to make a connection with my heritage, with the community that helped raise me, and my family before me.
Speaking French allowed me to interact with parishioners who had not developed as strong proficiency in English, and helped me get to know others who spoke English very well in a new way.
Furthermore, as I advanced in the language, I learned more about French history, which has helped me understand the historical and international forces that influence our world and communities, and how those influences evolve and have further consequences over time.
I feel that my experience of re-accessing lost parts of my heritage, is a part of a common modern American story. In a class recently, my classmates and I shared out the languages our ancestors spoke. We discovered our stories had more similarities than differences - ancestors had immigrated to America speaking a language other than English; the original language was lost (accidentally or forcibly); and our generation was the first to begin to rebuild that ancestral multi-lingualism.
So, why study French? Or any world language for that matter?
To reclaim a missing part of your family’s history. To understand world events (past and present) in a new light. To get to know someone you might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn from. To participate more fully in a nearby community. To engage in modern American stories. The possibilities truly are endless!
Colette is a French teacher in a high school in Minneapolis who enjoys discovering and embarking on life's little adventures each day with her friends, family, colleagues, and students. She was a weekend camper at Lac du Bois - Bemidji in middle school and finally found her way back to CLV last year when she worked at Lac du Bois - Hackensack as one of the credit instructors. Looking forward to many years of adventures in French with CLV!