Reblog: Dialect or Not, That is the Question.

After my last post on dialect, Yin kindly directed me to her post about this very same issue. I come to the dialect/language question from a professional perspective; I have never personally been faced with this difficult and emotionally weighted question. So I share with you this post which I think demonstrates very well some aspects of the question from a personal perspective. Additionally, her musings about the upswing of the Shanghai dialect mirror my own beliefs about the relationship between power/economy and dialect.
Thanks Yin, for letting me share this with my readers.

Dialect or Not, That is the Question..

Using the “second language” at home: What’s the etiquette?

This post was inspired by a reader question, one that I think may be of interest to many minority language parents. A Greek couple have just moved to the UK with their young son (almost 3-years old). They are being encouraged by the nursery to use English at home with him, to help him “learn English faster” and are wondering what they should do about this. It’s always a tricky thing to deal with – when educators are telling you to do one thing for your child’s good, and you feel that the opposite is better. How do you work around this? Whose responsibility is it to “teach” the second language? How will it affect the minority language if they parents start using the majority language (in this case, English) in the home? Will it confuse the child or help? Here are some things to consider when making these decisions.

Firstly, you must consider the age and development of your child. If he understands that there are two different languages and can discuss this with you (even in a basic way, like “This is cheese in Greek and in English we say cheese.” then they are more able to handle the parents changing language with them. So, you could then offer some sentences or words in Greek and then say them in English too. However, there are two drawbacks to this method. Firstly, it may not work. If the child has the choice to listen in the language they know the best, or try harder in the new language, guess which choice they usually make? Yes, of course, they may just block out the unfamiliar English input and focus on the Greek. You could push the issue, but then you put yourself in a position of creating conflict between your child’s two languages. The second issue is that when parents start using the majority language, they can be setting foot on a slippery slope – as the child gets older and more confident in English, they may stop wanting to use the minority language (Greek) with the parents. Because, after all, the parents started using English with them first…

Another issue to consider is how good the child’s first language development is at the moment. A child who is still in the process of acquiring the first language accurately (this is a life-long process, but the critical years are up until about 4-years old), they need the continued quantity and quality of input provided by the parents. This is absolutely necessary to provide the child with a solid, well-developed “L1″. If the parents start prioritizing the new language, to the detriment of the L1, this can have disastrous consequences for the child.

So, all these would point to the answer being that the parents should not start using English at home. How then, to deal with the issues brought up (and suggestions from) the nursery.
Firstly, you need to let the nursery know that your intentions are to raise your child bilingual which means that Greek is just as important as English. And that, developmentally, your child needs to continue to grow in Greek, which will also help their English grow as well.
Secondly, you can agree, with the nursery staff, on some critical communicative points that you will help your child understand. Pictures around the classroom can be very helpful for children who can’t communicate yet, but need to express certain ideas.

This is an example of a communication tool that children can use in the classroom before they are verbal in the new language. Nurseries that have non-native speaker children should have a system of helping pre-verbal children to communicate their needs (thanks to the British School of Amsterdam for the photo from their excellent resources).
With parental help to show and talk about these resources in the classroom, the parents can use the L1 – the strongest language – to help children acquire knowledge of classroom routines etc, which they then can learn the new words for more easily.

As children become more aware of their two languages, and able to translate/differentiate, parents can choose to use the majority language at home. They can create “domains of use” in which they use English together with the child, to help them learn some basic skills (turn-taking in games, for example) and vocabulary in English. These should be well-delineated in time and space (we are going to sit at the table every Saturday afternoon and play this game in English) to make sure that the child understands that this is a language-based activity and not a lifestyle change.

The bottom line is that children can learn another language from the “immersion” (or submersion) method, even when they start at later ages. The parents’ main job is to support the growth of the L1 (or mother tongue, or whatever you want to call it!) and by doing so support their child’s cognitive development. If they feel that their child is ready, developmentally, to understand the use of two languages at home (in well-defined situations) then they can choose to do this. They can always support nursery learning by talking about all things nursery-related in the L1, to help the child understand what they are/should be doing while at nursery.
The job of the nursery staff is to provide resources for pre-verbal children to use in the classroom, and to indicate to the parents (via handout or email etc.) what important concepts/routines they want the children to understand in order to be able to participate in class.

And if everybody does their job, then the children will come out as successful bilinguals, which should always be the “end of the road” goal.

“I thought you were going to tell us why English was more important!”

Yesterday, we held a seminar for parents at the primary school we are using as our pilot school for the EAL training project. The point of the seminar was to help parents understand the process of becoming bilingual through school, and how they can best help their children through the process. At the end, one woman put her hand up to say how much she had enjoyed it, and how happy she was to hear that their home language, Arabic, was just as important as English. It reminded me how hard it is for parents trying to raise children to be bilingual in English-speaking places. English is so pervasive, and convincing, that parents and children often end up thinking that it would be better to become “English only” than to become bilingual.
Here are my top reasons why “bilingual” is better than “English only”:

1. Bilingualism is good for (almost) all children, socially, cognitively and linguistically, so why choose against it?

2. The child’s first language(s) (home language, mother tongue, L1) is critical to cognitive development – it’s the language the child learns best in, while they are learning English. It should be used to support the learning that they are struggling with at school due to lack of language.

3. Confidence – children need to continue using the language that they are best at, to promote confidence and appropriate socialization. In the early years of learning English (or other) at school, they can’t really be who they are, as they don’t have the same level of language or social skill. Encouraging them and finding opportunities for them to use their strongest language will give them a niche to be themselves, fully.

4. Culture – Children who grow without the language of their parents (or one parent) exist in a kind of cultural vacuum, where they are part “something” culturally, but are not accepted into this culture because they do not speak the language. I have met many adults in this position, who feel that they have lost their roots, because they do not have access, through language, to part of who they are, and often they feel resentful towards their parents.

5. There is no research evidence demonstrating that it is better, for any reason, to lose a language. In fact, most often research demonstrates negative aspects to losing a language.

The bottom line is that having another language will not interfere with a child’s learning of a new language at school (what many parents are afraid of), and in fact, the stronger their first language, they better their English will grow as well. At our pilot school, the teaching assistants have started using L1 with new arrivals when possible, to help them understand better and integrate. The stories they tell of how use of the mother tongue in school has changed children’s perceptions of school and helped them feel more comfortable are moving. In addition, they have also noted (anecdotally) that the children with mother tongue support at school are actually improving in English more quickly than before.

So, remind someone today that their mother tongue is important!

“You can’t speak that language here!”

One of the great things to come out of our initial training sessions last week in Oxford is that the school we are working with has a very positive attitude towards other languages. Not only do they let kids speak their L1 (first language) but they also encourage them to use it for writing and at home.
That may sound obvious, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Far too often I hear of, or come across, schools with a “majority language only” policy. Most of the time, schools do this for what they believe to be a good reason. If kids need to learn the majority language (say, Dutch here in NL or English in the UK) it seems to make sense to only allow that language at school. Other times, the reason is not as positive, and has to do with disallowing other cultures in school. But really, no matter the motivation, is this good policy and practice?
The answer is a resounding “NO!”. In fact, it goes against language learning theory as well as against (in my opinion) children’s basic rights.
Firstly, school success is dependent on children understanding what is happening. Two small children who share a language and are both learning the school language can collaborate and help each other understand, by mediating what they hear through their strongest language. Sitting in a corner, isolated and understanding nothing, is not a good way to learn the language, never mind learn anything else. And in the process of collaborating, those children are learning to feel comfortable in the school, and learning that there is *someone* who understands them. Imagine the feeling of starting in a new school (and possible a new culture) and not knowing anybody and not being able to communicate, at all. A 6-year old child falls, functionally, to the level of about a 1-year old in terms of ability to understand an communicate. What do you think that feels like?
This leads to my second point, which is that school success is also linked to “belonging”. Children who feel a part of the group, and the school, and who can be themselves, are likely to do better, because their motivation will be higher. Being able to use their strongest language, and communicate at an age-appropriate level with somebody will help kids fit in and feel more comfortable, therefore more likely to try and integrate. Being completely unable to communicate who you are or what you feel, think, need, is not a good feeling for anyone. I watched this happen last week in my older daughter’s new class. My daughter was the only native English speaker in the group (12 pupils) and when the teacher spent a few minutes with each child, the difference in how they were able to express themselves was marked. These are children who are 10 years old, and most of them have been schooled in their L1 up until this year. At best, they were able to communicate their name, age, and how long they had been living here. At worst, they could say nothing at all. In contrast, the teacher walked away with a full brief bio of my daughter – the only child who could use her L1 to converse. Imagine being a 10-year old and being deprived of language?
This leads me to my final point which is, not to overstate things, human rights. I do not believe that anyone, no matter the authority they possess, has the right to dictate language choice to another person, not even to a child. Language and expression are fundamental to humans, and when languages have been suppressed in the past (Spain, Wales) it has been disastrous. Why are we allowing this to still happen to our children, and in our schools?

Post note: I am aware that there are pedagogical reasons for encouraging the use of the school language in classrooms, which is another post. I am talking here about the banning of other languages on school campuses, in particular.

One more bilingualism myth bites the dust…

One of the most common myths about bilingualism is that bilingual children “learn to speak later” than monolinguals. I’ve heard it, read it, said it, but strangely, I haven’t experienced it at all with my three bilingual kids. Now, as a researcher, I know that three kids does not a “reliable statistical study” make… but certainly anecdotally, I have not found this to be the case. In addition, although I’ve heard this myth a lot, and read it in several popular books, I’ve never seen convincing research on the topic. Well, convincing research is on its way, and it comes down firmly on the side of “myth” (for now, anyway!).
This article does a good job of explaining the evidence, and refuting the claim of later language for bilinguals. As an aside, Annick De Houwer’s books are a great reference for parents of young simultaneous bilinguals, although they are definitely “research reading” and not “easy” reading.

From the Linguistics Research Digest Blog:

Do children hearing two languages acquire language at a slower rate?

Mother Tongue? Father Tongue? What’s it all about?

Traditionally, bilingualism research used the term “Mother Tongue” to describe the language spoken by the mother. Because there is no use of “Father Tongue” there is an implication that the language that the father speaks is of lesser importance. Is this true? Is the “mother tongue” more important? The answer is, of course, “no”. The language spoken by each of the parents is important to the child, and both should be acquired. In order to recognize this fact, researchers moved towards the terminology “L1″ and “L2″. We used these terms for a long time, with the added complication that a child could have two “L1″ languages, if they had two languages from birth. So the obvious drawback of this paradigm is that the use of “1” and “2” indicates a priority system or a sequencing, where one language comes first, and the other follows. So, back to the drawing board, and now we are all meant to use “Language A” and “Language Alpha” in situations where children are learning two languages simultaneously. Therefore, the mother’s language may be “A” and the father’s language “Alpha”, or the language in the home may be “A” and the language outside the home “Alpha”. The point of these new names is to remove any insinuations of inequality between the languages.
Now, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, so I often find myself using the “old” terms, just because they are what I have always known. I do, however, insist on the point that “father tongue” is important. It is still a fact that more mothers stay home with their children while fathers work than the opposite (at least with the families I work with) so very often the “father tongue” needs more attention and planning than the language spoken by the mother. In order to help out all the dads who worry about passing their language on to their children, here are some tips.
The most important kind of input for language is “infant directed speech” (IDS). This is when we talk to babies, looking at them directly, and using simple, clear language. This does *not* have to be “baby talk”! In the early months (yes, I said months), spend time, every day, speaking directly to your baby. Consider mixed input, where you are showing them things and talking about the items, consider telling little, easy stories. Consider talking to them about body parts, clothing, food etc – items that are concrete and in their environment.
Never underestimate the importance of “Daddy Story Time”. Read to your little one every day, using simple books, and drawing their attention to items in the stories. Increase the amount of interaction as they get older and more able. Use longer, more complex stories to stimulate cognitive growth and conversation in your language, and take time to talk about vocabulary.
*Don’t* expect that Mama putting on a DVD in your language during the day will help your children – this is not IDS, and it is not helpful for language acquisition. You have to do this yourself!
Many families I have worked with have classified the father as “not a talker” and discussed how much the Dad struggles to interact on a regular, meaningful basis with a baby or small child. Often these Dads were tired after a long day of work, and spend a very limited amount of time with their young children. These are all understandable facts of modern life, but the bottom line is if you want your children to have their “Father Tongue” then it is the father’s job to pass it on – take that job seriously!

Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, and was finally motivated to write about it by a post on a parenting board. A Spanish-speaking American mother was considering her language use with her children, and how much Spanish she does or should use with her children. This sparked a discussion with some other children of immigrants, and even from that small sample, the trends of language use in the US came through. Statistically, by the third generation, Americans have lost the language that came to the country with their grandparents. Despite the recent increase in xenophobic panic and “English only” movements, this trend is still firmly in place (Source). First generation immigrants tend to arrive with limited English, so they continue to speak to their children in their own language (Mother Tongue, heritage language, first language, community language…). The second generation grows up bilingual, in their parents’ language and in English, but they raise their own children, the third generation, to be English monolinguals.
Why is this? Is it something we should be worried about? Is there anything that can be done? The answers to the first and last questions are quite clear-cut. The answer to the second one, however, is much more personal.
The reasons for the shift away from bilingualism can’t be described in one short post, but in a nutshell, I think the most important elements are language status and lack of information. You can read more about language status here but basically, home languages in the US are viewed as unnecessary and not worthy of serious effort to sustain. On the flip side, in Canada, where “Heritage Languages” receive government support, in policy and in funding, the results are quite different. Over the last 50 years, the number of immigrants succeeding in transferring their language through three generations has increased greatly (Source. The difference in perceived value and institutional support helps immigrants maintain their language, and pass it on to their children. So, that’s the “why”, in brief (and only for a certain situation).
Now let’s look at what can be done. Firstly, every immigrant, migrant, refugee needs to understand the value of the language and the culture they bring with them. You can be American, or Canadian, and be bilingual, or not speak English perfectly. After all, the first languages of these countries were hugely diverse, and none of them were English. Secondly, there needs to be a better transmission of knowledge about the benefits of bilingualism. There are so many potential cognitive, linguistic and social benefits to bilingualism that people don’t always know about, or understand. There needs to be a better societal and educational understanding of why bilingualism is beneficial, to refute the on-going discussions about bilingualism being a threat. This starts with everyone who works with parents and small children – doctors, nurses, health clinics, social workers, teachers – these people all need a better understanding of why bilingualism should be encouraged, and how to do so.
And now the stickier question – should we be worried? In my opinion, absolutely, but of course I am going to say that. In reality, every family facing the choice of moving to a new monolingual standard after immigration, or keeping bilingualism alive in their family has to make their own choice. For families who arrive in a new language location with young children, the best choice is to maintain bilingualism. The potential risks of “dropping” a language for a child are great – these populations are at risk of not “mastering” any language and therefore suffering academically. But for families who are raising the third generation, parents who can speak English (or the main language of their new home) fluently, is there an imperative to pass on the “old” language and aim for bilingualism? And if this choice is made, is it possible to pass on another language when faced with the juggernaut of English in the US (or Canada, or the UK…)? Yes, it is possible, but it takes dedication and planning. Do some research, and understand first all of the really great things your kids will take away from being bilingual. Consider how hard it will be for them to try and learn another language later, through an imperfect education system. Consider also the benefits that you, yourself, have had from being bilingual- linguistic benefits, but also the contact with your culture and your heritage. If all of these combine to make you sure that you want to pass your language on, then make a plan that will get you there. You need to consistently expose your children to the other language, you need to have resources for reading, and encourage other family members and friends to use the language with your children. You need to bring the language alive for your children, so that they can understand and communicate and feel a part of the people represented by the language.
For more information on Family Language Planning you can read here.
For more information on minority language support you can read this post about creating monolingual situations to support minority language growth, and this post for families where only one parent speaks the minority language.
In my opinion, not only as a specialist, but also as a bilingual who worked very hard as an adult to become bilingual, it’s absolutely worth the effort and planning to pass another language, and a cultural heritage, on to a new generation.