Children of many languages

I envy my kids. Having grown up in a monolingual family, I’m green-eyed when I hear my daughters speaking Bosnian. Jealous of their double-barrelled identity – how they slip between worlds and curl their tongues around words that, for me, still have a foreign feel.

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‘Ja sam tvoja učiteljica,’ says my six-year-old, with a strong hint of Sarajevo in her voice. When it’s a question of pronunciation, I couldn’t have a better teacher. Her grammar also flows more smoothly than mine. She mightn’t always get it right, but her inflections seem the product of osmosis. No brainpower wasted deliberating over whether the case-ending is dative or instrumental. Her Bosnian sounds instinctive… sometimes she even uses it in her sleep.

Her ease with her two languages isn’t surprising. Children tend to learn more implicitly than adults. Thus, they appear to acquire second language words and phrases quicker than many older learners. However, the context of learning is also important. The extent to which children are exposed to two (or more) languages and the situations in which they use them can influence the nature of their linguistic development. Growing up in a bilingual environment, communication (with parents, teachers, friends, siblings and other relatives) is likely to draw on both languages in ways that are directly relevant to the child’s experience. As children develop, their knowledge of two languages should gradually become more complex… if their use of each is supported and allowed to diversify in an age-appropriate manner. Second language acquisition in such ‘natural’ contexts is generally more successful than ‘instructed’ learning, typically confined to lessons of limited duration held outside the region in which the language is spoken.

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Children from immigrant backgrounds should, therefore, be in a good position to develop bilingual skills. They’re often immersed in an environment in which the dominant language and/or cultural traditions are different to those of their families. Linguistically and socially, they may feel more ‘at home’ in this milieu than parents who grew up abroad. But at what cost…? ‘Minority’ languages and cultures can be rendered inaudible under the volume of the ‘majority’ voice. Certainly, to reach their full potential, children require a thorough knowledge of the language and cultural codes of the society in which they live. However, this should complement – not conflict with – their learning from extra-curricular sources, such as home, extended family and community. Integration must be a two-way process, one that fosters intercultural understanding. Shameful cases of racial profiling, involving Roma children in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, have recently highlighted the need to respect families’ home cultures and languages. These can contribute to and challenge prevailing discourse. Negotiation may be necessary, but this can be enriching… for everyone.

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Let’s take a look, then, at practical ways to support children’s home languages. This is an issue central to my research field so I ought to have a few answers! There are many experts in this area whose work I’d recommend to anyone who might be interested in reading further (please see the websites mentioned at the end of this post). But, for now, I want to keep things jargon-free. As throughout my blog, I’ll also illustrate some points from my own experience. The ideas I’m offering here are written more from the perspective of a parent than a postdoc.

Much advice exists as to ‘best practice’ in the raising of bilingual children. Sometimes, though, I find it can sound a bit too prescriptive. Or it gives the impression that bilingualism is state of perfect fluency which can be seamlessly achieved. This can risk demotivating parents, especially when progress doesn’t seem as steady as they may hope. Plus the literature often focusses on internationally ‘prestigious’ languages – ones that have an economic value. Unlike, for example, Bosnian, which – despite its alluring musicality – couldn’t be described as ‘lucrative’. On-line suggestions can consequently appear ‘ivory towerish’ or read with the saccharine ring of the ‘model parent’ who believes that Mandarin lessons are just what his/her toddler needs as a head-start en route to Harvard. Nevertheless, studies across the world, conducted in diverse social contexts, have proven the merit of approaches to learning which activate children’s plurilingual repertoires.

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Efforts that bring together family, school and community, have been found effective in sustaining the home languages of children from immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, in such cases, they can be particularly necessary, since mother tongue attrition is high when kids are being educated primarily through the society’s ‘majority’ language. Home language maintenance initiatives can thus combat the risk of linguistic loss and allow the children of immigrant parents to avail of the many advantages of bilingualism. These include:

  • Enhanced capacity to learn other languages.
  • Better problem-solving skills, due to more flexible thinking. This can be very useful when learning school subjects such as maths.
  • Greater ease in overall literacy development – reading and writing skills can transfer between the child’s two languages. Children who are literate in their home language have shown to be more adept at developing ‘biliteracy’.

I’ll end with a few tips for parents whose kids are growing up with two languages, especially when this dynamic results from immigration. These thoughts are followed by a short and ‘scary’ movie! Here, I’ll use the terms ‘home’, ‘heritage’ and ‘minority’ languages interchangeably and the ideas I’ll outline are as applicable to multilingual as to bilingual families. For additional research on this theme, check out the web-links below.

1. Use home languages!

If you’re a native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language, always use your mother ​tongue with your child. Our native language comes most naturally to us. It enables us to express affection in ways that might be language-specific. For example, Slavic diminutives to indicate fondness, such as the Bosnian -ica and -ić suffixes, lose some of their feeling when translated into English. Our native language also conveys cultural concepts. From the names of festivals and practices associated with them, to proverbs, abstract values and words for family members. In Bosnian, for instance, an intricate network of terms is used for the identification of aunts, uncles and cousins.

If you grew up bilingual – for example as a ‘second generation’ immigrant – try to use your ‘heritage’ language (that of your parents) as much you can with your child. As a formative language for you, it can be part of your child’s linguistic and cultural inheritance.

Also, if you’re a native-speaker of the ‘majority’ language, support your partner’s attempts to raise your child bilingually. Learn his/her language yourself and use it, to the best of your abilities, with your child. It doesn’t matter if your proficiency isn’t at ‘native-speaker’ level – don’t let grammatical worries get in the way of talking. You can play a vital role in preserving the ‘minority’ language by making it a channel of communication. From my family’s experience, this is particularly important if the father is the native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language and there isn’t much chance to use it in the immediate community.

2. Don’t expect perfection!

Globally, bilingualism is prevalent over monolingualism, but most people aren’t ‘balanced bilinguals’ who are equally proficient in two languages. The degree to which languages develop depends on contextual factors. In bilingual societies, both languages are prominent in everyday life, education and media. However, when one language is dominant – as English is in a lot of anglophone countries – parents may have to enhance the child’s environment by creating opportunities for bilingualism. But how?

  • Buy or borrow children’s books in the ‘minority’/home language and read these to your child. Help him/her learn to read and write in the language of the home.
  • Songs and DVDs in the home language are fun ways of increasing your child’s exposure to it.
  • Internet games and resources are also very engaging and children can use technology to research school topics through their home languages. Skype provides a handy link to relatives in other countries and, as an audio-visual means of communication, it may be easier for children than telephone calls.
  • Visits to family in places where the home language is spoken. Even if relatives abroad are themselves bilingual, ask them to use their native language with your child.
  • Contact with the home language community within the child’s country of residence can be significant too, although access to this may depend on where families live.
  • If possible, enrol your child in a complementary school. These schools, which offer weekend or evening classes, have been established to support children’s home languages in many states. In Ireland, the Polish community is particularly active in this regard, with over twenty weekend schools teaching Polish language and culture to children across the country. For smaller, more scattered communities, it can be difficult to set up such schools – parental involvement and commitment are the key to their existence. Complementary schools can provide kids with opportunities to use/learn the home language alongside other children, as well as to develop biliteracy and understand more about aspects of their culture.

3. Make home-school links with languages!

Talk to your child in the home language about what they did at school. Help them with school-related words that mightn’t normally enter into ordinary conversation (e.g. subject-specific terms). When children are doing homework, use the home language as a medium for discussion. My kids, with some support, explain maths exercises in both Bosnian and English. They also translate Irish reading passages and spellings into Bosnian.

Encourage teachers and schools to become more aware of children’s home languages and cultures. Schools, in Ireland at least, may differ in the emphasis they place on intercultural education, despite the fact that it’s essential for all children (see my previous post ‘Back to intercultural school’). However, many welcome the involvement of immigrant parents and value their role as representatives of children’s diverse languages. This can enable parents to participate in activities with a home language focus, such as storytelling, which some schools already facilitate. Making connections between complementary and mainstream schools further recognises this fundamental dimension of children’s learning which can otherwise go under the official radar.

4. Don’t give up!

Kids are kids… They learn at different rates. They vary in their learning styles and their personalities. Their motivation fluctuates. From my own family, I’m all too conscious of the problems… Answering their dad in English, when they know the reply in Bosnian, not wanting to ‘stand out’ by speaking a ‘foreign’ language in public, sibling rivalry, accommodating different age and interest levels, living far from other Bosnian children, trying to make the most of our short trips to Sarajevo. The obstacles are many. Yet the benefits are huge – not just the linguistic or general educational advantages of being bilingual, but the cultural and emotional attachments that kids develop through two languages. It requires perseverance… though even the smallest steps forward are positive. So parents – bon courage, good luck, sretno!

SCARY MOVIE in Bosnian (za djecu / for kids)

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Coming up to Halloween, my three daughters wrote and performed a short horror film in Bosnian… Please enjoy!

https://vimeo.com/78005461

If you have any problems opening this link (unfortunately I’m on freebie WordPress without video uploads) I’ve also sent it via Twitter… follow the tweets! Please turn off the HD function if watching on a PC – it should work fine on a smartphone or a tablet.

© Noć Vještica Filmovi

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Also, some useful websites:

Multilingual Learning – Goldsmiths University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/

Bilingual Forum Ireland: http://www.bilingualforumireland.com/index.html

Website of Jim Cummins – international expert in bilingual education: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/
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2 thoughts on “Children of many languages

  1. Pingback: Speak in Many Tongues | Find Me A Cure

  2. Pingback: Language Play | The Head of the Heard

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