© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How immigrant families preserve history, culture and familial bonds through language

Two young girls chase each other around a circle of other children.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Saanvi Kathal, foreground, chases Avani Kambala around a circle of fellow students on Friday at the Hindu Temple of St. Louis’ Education and Cultural Center in Ballwin. The students were playing a version of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” counting in Hindi as they made their way around the circle.

The children of immigrants often face the loss of their elders’ language.

It’s something Mayank Jain and his wife, Anshu Jain, noticed with their son. They taught him Hindi at home, but they wanted a more structured setting for him not only to learn and practice the language, but also to immerse in Indian culture and community.

“Just like a good coach can make [Patrick] Mahomes play good football, Mahomes needs a team to play with, right? So I started looking for a team, and I did not find somebody who my son could speak with or [be in that] environment with,” Jain said.

So Mayank and Anshu Jain launched Learn Hindi STL, an organization that started out with meetings at a public library. Within a couple of years, it became HindiUSA St. Louis. It’s now the largest nonprofit Hindi school in the Midwest.

Their story is not unique. In the St. Louis area, parents and community members are teaching children the languages they grew up with to prevent severance of a cultural connection that’s hard to reverse, especially if language loss reaches the third and fourth generation.

As an assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics at St. Louis University, Ander Beristain encourages families and educators to normalize the use of heritage languages in public, instead of confining their use to private spaces only.

"Many times that language becomes isolated — it's a language that's spoken in the household and not really outside of the house,” he said. “[Make] it a part of your daily life, [make] it natural … because the more people that use it, the easier it's going to be to retain it.”

Two young children — a boy and a girl — flip through a children's book with a picture of a sun on one page. The text of the book is written in Arabic.
Lara Hamdan
St. Louis Public Radio
Mariyah Abdelbaset, 10, and her brother Fares, 8, look through an Arabic children's book on Saturday during their weekly language learning session with St. Louis on the Air production intern Ulaa Kuziez. When Kuziez immigrated to St. Louis at age 9, she nearly lost her Arabic as she learned to speak English. After regaining fluency, she now teaches Arabic to kids in her community.

Speaking on St. Louis on the Air, Beristain offered other practical tips for heritage language learning and teaching:

  • Encourage, don’t force. “If you force your kid to speak the language, and they don't really feel it … that's not going to end up well,” Beristain said. Instead, try to cultivate a sense of pride in the heritage language and an internal desire to learn it.
  • Go natural. Incorporate heritage language use into everyday life. "Ask questions like, 'What are we going to eat?’ or ‘Let's cook — [and] let's use the language while we cook,'” said Beristain.
  • Set realistic expectations. Unattainable goals lead to shame for the learner and frustration for the teacher. “The teacher will be frustrated because this kid is not doing what I'm expecting them to do,” Beristain said. “Then the kid [is] feeling horrible, because maybe they want to connect back to their culture, to their language, and they can't feel like they can do that because their teacher is strict.”

To hear how one local college student nearly lost then fully reengaged with her heritage language — and how embracing the language of elder generations strengthens individual and community bonds as well as a sense of cultural identity — listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Preserving history, culture and family bonds through language

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

Stay Connected
Elaine Cha is the host/producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.