There are lots of reasons why people learn a foreign language – love, business, travel, hobby, necesity etc., but one reason that seems to pop up more and more is to connect with their roots. Many learn in order to speak with or write to relatives still using the language, others learn just to make a connection with their ancestry, to immerse themselves in their own heritage.
How many people have a grandmother from “the old country” who still speaks with a heavy accent, or an aunt who speaks more in her first language than English? Or how about some newly arrived cousins still struggling with English? Even if your family has been speaking English for generations, the vast majority of people whose native language is English have ancestors from other countries and communities whose native language was not English. Many of us still have a fascination and an affinity with things associated with that “old country.” As an example, I see many people who have a Cead Mile Failte plaque outside their front door. It means “a hundred thousand welcomes” in Irish Gaelic, and is a proud declaration of their heritage, as well as a warm welcome into their home.
People of Irish ancestry living outside of Ireland (the U.S., Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia etc) often study Irish in order to make some connection with their ancestry, even if only to learn how to pronounce Cead Mile Failte or all those interesting looking place-names in Ireland. Celtic place-names have a peculiar tendency to last, even long after their original inhabitants have moved on and been replaced by people speaking different languages. Continental Europe has many such names, perhaps owing to the unique qualities of the Celtic people embodied in their languages. To quote John Millington Synge – “There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting.”
We often come to a time in our lives when we think about who we are and how we got here, and a lot of that was determined by our ancestors long before we were born. When combined with the needs and goals in our present lives such as business, travel and caring for our family this can become a powerful incentive to learn a second language, particularly a language which we already have a connection to.
The concept of family or community does not have to exist only in the present. There is a wonderful quote by Christopher Ricks which sums this up nicely – “When a language creates, as it does, a community within the present, it does so only by courtesy of a community between the present and the past.”
In some small way, learning our heritage languages can open the door to understanding what kind of people our ancestors were and ultimately gaining a better understanding of ourselves. What better way to define who we are in the present than by reaching back into the past and learning more about our ancestors that got us here.