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The place and value of a heritage language in the lives of Japanese Canadians Takei, Naoko

Abstract

This study explores the perceptions that Japanese Canadians hold about their heritage language. Their perceptions could be influenced by internal factors (personal events in their lives), and external factors (events that have occurred in the world around them, outside of their realm of control). Identifying their perceptions and the influential factors in the shaping of them, the study ultimately investigates the place and value of their heritage language in the lives of Japanese Canadians. The participants in this study are Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation) Japanese Canadians. They were selected to reflect two unique characteristics associated with their age, and the world events they have been exposed to. Most studies of heritage language speakers have been conducted on school-aged subjects. In order to examine experiences with language as more than an academic subject, the participants in this study are all adults who have not only completed their schooling, but have had time to garner a range of life experiences after doing so. These participants are also part of a population whose families were touched directly by events associated with the Second World War and the major social reformations that occurred in its aftermath. This combination uniquely places these participants to illustrate both internal and external influence on their perceptions of their heritage language. A narrative inquiry approach is employed in this study owing to its effectiveness in addressing the complexity and richness of life stories. The stories of four focal participants, which were constructed from interviews and their own autobiographical essays are presented and briefer stories from the remaining seven participants are integrated into discussions. The findings suggest that the most important function and value heritage languages serve for the Japanese Canadians in this study is the maintenance of family connections. However, the loss of their heritage language did not immediately translate into a loss of family connections. When language loses its function as a communication tool, if the family retains their cultural values, the symbolic functions of the language can continue to be maintained among family members who share the same culture. A loss of both heritage language and culture can devastate a family relationship. The reciprocal roles of family (in maintaining heritage language), and heritage language (in maintaining family connections) is the focus for discussion in this paper.

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