Tag Archives: Mother Tongue

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.

When Bilingualism Goes Political

As a Canadian, I am very aware of the political nature of bilingualism in many places. Historically, language has been used to dominate and assimilate, and to include or exclude certain groups from mainstream society. Language is not only about communication, but also about culture and thought and how we interact with others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#atop) forbids discrimination on the basis of language. Yet still, in the 21st century, language is used as a political weapon.
A few weeks ago a good friend in Canada (hi Ian!) directed my attention to an article about the Quebec language laws, and plans to restrict English further. (http://m.publishing.rogers.com/macleans/share/2012-35/08a_nat_patriquin.html). I’ve been gone from Canada for a long time, but I lived in Quebec for almost ten years, and became bilingual in Quebec, and felt a strong sense of belonging in my “francophone” life there. It saddens me greatly to see that politicians in Quebec are still restricting access to English, for reasons that are entirely political and not at all pragmatic. For people who aren’t aware of the language laws in Quebec, Bill 101 lays out what activities can happen in English in the province, and under what conditions, including in the field of education. Generally speaking, the only people who have the right to English-language schooling for their children must also have been schooled in English themselves, at the primary or secondary levels. This was done to prevent immigrants and refugees from choosing English-language schools for their children, to increase the numbers of French speakers. A worthy end-goal, but certainly a vinegar approach rather than honey. In the new legislation, they would extend these limitations to post-secondary education as well, meaning that francophone students would no longer be allowed to attend English-language colleges (CEGEPS).
I absolutely understand the desire to maintain the French language as the language of Quebec, both emotionally and functionally. However, I abhor the use of language to segregate and marginalize. When I was teaching in France, my students often mentioned that it must be hard to teach such low-level learners, after teaching in Quebec, where everyone surely spoke English very well. Unfortunately, not true. Years of politicking about language and restricting language learning and use has led to a great divide in Quebec, as one of the only places in the world that I can think of where people actively refuse the use of a second language.
Far from learning from our past, when linguistic minority groups were routinely discriminated against and eliminated, language discrimination seems to be once again on the rise. From the Quebec situation to activist groups in the US pushing for “English-only” legislation, we seem to be celebrating bilingualism on an individual level, but still can’t deal with it on a societal level in many places. Europe has a “language rich Europe” program, but speakers of minority or immigrant languages are still routinely discriminated against. School children are still being forbidden the use of their home language at school, and being forced to use only a language that they do not master. And politicians are still using the emotional power that language stirs up to promote their own nationalist, discriminatory agendas.
There is not really one thing we can do to change this, except to keep advocating, not only for our own families, but for everyone’s families, the benefits of bilingualism and the understanding that comes with using the language of another.
In the next weeks I am going to spend some time looking for online resources to help share the message of positive bilingualism, please share your resources as well.

/end political diatribe…

Can one parent pass on two languages?

Every so often, I meet a parent who would like to pass on more than one language to their children. Sometimes they are a single parent, dealing with a home and societal language, sometimes they are a bilingual themselves and want their children to speak both of their languages. So, the question comes up, is it possible for one person to be “in charge” of passing on more than one language?
There is no absolute answer, but I lean strongly towards “not a good idea”. While I understand the reasoning behind the desire, the elements for successful bilingualism are hard to achieve with one person and two languages.
Firstly, in the early years, consistency is important in helping your children’s brains anaylse input and create a fully competent language system. If one parent is attempting to use two languages, it would be very hard to structure the input to be always consistent in language usage. For example, you could try and do one language each day, and alternate, but may find that sometimes you slip into the other language without noticing. While this may not be a problem once in a while, trying to maintain artificial language use patterns may ultimately feel too hard.
Secondly, the amount of input needed to truly acquire a language is substantial, and one person trying to provide input in two languages may have a hard time finding enough waking hours in which to do so. A general benchmark is 20% input is the minimum for successful language acquisition, although I personally find that children need closer to 30% to begin using the language. So, if a child is awake 10 hours a day (when they are young), you would aim for about 3 hours minimum in each language. Of course input doesn’t need to be this rigid, sometimes it comes in chunks on the weekend and is limited during the week (for a working parent), so I encourage parents to look at the pattern of weeks. But realistically, it’s very hard for one person to have enough interaction time to successfully transmit two languages.
Now, that being said, some people do choose to pass on two languages, and work very hard to ensure success. The vast majority of the time though, they need to bring in outside support for one or both, in order to ensure adequate input and consistency.
If you have a story of someone doing this successfully, I’d love to hear it.

Local Language or Not?

Continuing in the spirit and theme of helping your children fit in with a new culture, I’d like to talk briefly about the benefits of having your children acquire a “temporary” language. These days, more families are moving to other countries/cultures with their children, for a few or several years, and then moving either home or on to the next posting. How should parents decide if a language is “worthwhile” or not?
In my opinion, it is almost always valuable to have your children learn the host-country language, as least to some extent. How much time and effort to put into it depends on the family situation – schooling options, age of children, length of posting and other languages in the family.
Firstly, let’s consider very young children from monolingual families. Any family moving with children who are under school age should consider day care/play school/preschool options in the local language. There are demonstrated benefits to acquiring two languages from a young age (cognitive, linguistic, social), so if you have this opportunity for your children, why pass it up? At most, they will go on to become fluent speakers of the language, and to have improved abilities to learn other languages later in life. At worst, they will have developed their language-learning facility and broadened their phonetic repertoire – even if they don’t maintain the language after leaving the host country. In addition, it sends a powerful message to children about the value of learning other languages – an especially important message in families where both parents speak the same language.
For school-age children, the decision is affected by different factors. I have seen school-aged children “dropped” into local schools, and have great experiences and come out “bilingual” in a few years. However, I’ve also seen school-aged children struggle with the transition to being in an environment where they are not linguistically competent. At this age and stage, much depends on the personality and motivation of the individual child. If the child is willing and able, they can absolutely benefit from a few years of school in another language, and if they become literate in the language they have the means to sustain it after leaving the host country. For other children, the compromise to academic achievement, confidence and social skills is too great, and the sink-or-swim method is not appropriate. A best-case scenario is sometimes a local school that has programs in place for language learners and support for the home language as well. In the (frequent) absence of such a school, an international that teaches in the home language but emphasizes learning of the host country language is sometimes the best option.
For older children – secondary school age – immersion in a local school is generally very difficult. The weight of academic content at the secondary school level leaves very little time for learning language to the level children need to function in academic classes. Therefore, the best choice again is often a school that teachers in the home language, but that also has strong support for learning the local language.
Overall, children of all ages can benefit from learning a language that they may not ultimately maintain throughout their lives. For younger children, the benefits may be more linguistic and cognitive in nature, while for older children the benefits may be more attitudinal, but there is almost always a case to be made for helping your children learn the local language in your travels.

Talking about Bilingualism in Parma…

So, November is well upon us, and I can see that my “Year of Talking about Bilingualism” is drawing to a close. One of the last big events for me this year is the closing conference of the “Poliglotti4.eu” project. This EU project has focused on the state of multilingualism in Europe, from different aspects. My personal involvement has been in the “Early Language Learning” project, initially at the Expert Seminar on Early Language Learning in February. At this final conference, taking place in Parma, Italy, I have been invited to participate in a session on Early Language Learning, collaborating with Annick de Houwer (so honoured to be meeting her and presenting with her!) and moderated by Cor van der Meer, from the Mercator Centre for Multilingualism and Language Learning.
So, what will I be talking about? Specifically, I’ll be addressing the results of a large-scale survey that found the following:

Top 3 challenges faced by bilingual families in Europe:
1) A positive language attitude regarding both languages
2) Finding adequate education for children
3) Enough information/materials to provide a language-rich environment for children

For schools:
Three most important issues to be improved with respect to Early Language Learning:

1) More opportunities for teachers to attend in-service training courses
2) More knowledge about the appropriate teaching methodology
3) Higher linguistic competence of teachers as well as better availability of teaching materials

Over the last three years, in cooperation with the British School of Amsterdam, I have developed a longitudinal and latitudinal training program that addresses the needs of schools for training, and also addresses the needs of parents for support in terms of theory and practice, for sustaining Mother tongue development while promoting second language learning in school. I believe that cooperative programs such as these (not only mine, there are others out there, I think) have the potential to transform the experience of children who are being raised as bilinguals outside their communities of practice. Having proper training in schools, and adequate and appropriate support for parents will go a long way to making children more successful in language learning in schools, and more successful at sustaining their mother tongue as well. Ultimately, programs such as these have the potential to address all of the main issues raised by parents and educators, regarding the European multilingual perspective.

And now I’m off to Parma, I’ll update tomorrow!

Language Status: How cool is your language?

One of the unfortunate realities of bilingualism is that success or failure is often determined by language status. Yes, it’s true, languages have “status”. Some languages are high status, some are low status, some are in the middle. It’s not an unchangeable rating – it depends on where you are and what other languages are involved. Here in the Netherlands the high status languages are Dutch, English, probably French, maybe German, and Frisian (in Friesland, arguably). Low status languages are Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Portuguese probably, Polish definitely. So how does language status affect bilingualism, and is there anything that can be done to counteract the effects?
The answer to the first question lies in sociocultural attitudes and government support. Language status is a complex phenomenon made up of people’s attitudes towards the home county of the language, people’s attitudes towards speakers of that language, and institutional attitudes about the language.
For example, all children in the Netherlands learn English in school. English is seen on mainstream television, and most Dutch kids will hear their parents using English at some point. All of these together give kids the message that English is useful and desirable. This means that children who are native speakers of English are not (usually) pressured to give up their language in favour of Dutch. The schools have a generally “additive” policy towards English speakers – “Happy you speak English, you can keep doing that, but we’d like you to add Dutch as well.”. This type of policy and practice, called additive bilingualism, usually results in successful bilinguals.
However, children arriving at school with low status languages (the aforementioned languages and others) face a different prospect. A Polish speaking child will generally have no support or encouragement institutionally to help them keep using Polish. The attitude is more likely to be “You speak Polish at home, but that isn’t useful here so we want you to replace your Polish with Dutch.” This is subtractive bilingualism – the plan is to subtract one language in favour of another. And it generally is not successful, because you can’t just swap the Mother Tongue and replace it to the same level with the school language. Maintenance and sustainability of Mother Tongue is critical to academic success, but can only be achieved if the child, family and school work together.
Because of this paradigm, it’s important for parents to consider the status of their language and plan to “boost” it if they feel that it is considered a low-status language where they are living. In addition, choosing a school carefully – one that includes and celebrates other languages and cultures, rather than one that demands assimilation, is critical.
The answer to the second question is yes – you can raise and support the status of your language, in your home and community, if not directly in your host country.
It’s important for kids to see that “their” language is a living and important language. It’s important for them to be among other people who use the language regularly. It’s important that parents resist treating their language as a kind of “secret” – “At home we speak Romanian but outside we only use Dutch.” Think about the message your children are getting by what languages you use in different contexts – even if you can’t change your language patterns, you can talk to your kids about why you make the choices you do.
Have available for your children as many resources as possible in the home language, it’s important for them to see that you can read and learn and play games in this language too. Using technological resources also increases the children’s evaluation of the “usefulness” of a language, so using the computer, finding Internet sites, DVDs, and apps in the home language are all valuable as well. If they are going to be playing on the iPad they might as well be supporting the home language at the same time…

The bottom line is that language status is important in bilingualism, but informed and active parents can help promote the status of, and therefore the sustainability of, their language within their families and communities. Planning for this should be a part of your family language plan.

Don’t forget to pack your Mother Tongue

NB. This post is a reprint of an article I wrote for a local paper (The Underground) in October, 2011

For families who arrive in the Netherlands with monolingual children, the choice for bilingualism should be an easy one. The benefits, short and long-term, of bilingualism, have been established and documented over the last few decades, and the research is convincing. Bilingual children show linguistic, cognitive and social benefits from being raised with two languages. Whenever feasible, bilingualism is a fantastic choice for our children. One of the key elements of successful bilingualism is “adequate input” in both (or all) languages. This means that the child must hear enough of the language to process how it works, and acquire a reasonable vocabulary. If a child receives adequate input, they can acquire any language successfully. If they do not receive adequate input, they may acquire a language only partially, or lose it later in life.

For monolingual families, especially those with English or another major European language as the Mother Tongue, the path to bilingualism can be simple – one language at home and another at school. Living in one language, and going to school in a second language is one of the most successful paths to bilingualism for many children, as the input receive in each language is adequate, in terms of amount and also generally in terms of quality.

But what about families who arrive in an expat situation with two languages to maintain, or with minority languages to maintain? For these families, finding a path to successful bilingualism can be more challenging. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the only languages of schooling easily available in The Hague are English, French, German and Dutch. For families from other language backgrounds, it is necessary to add another language – a school language- on top of the home language(s). Often, if the parents opt for non-English schooling, the children still need to master English to a certain point, as the language of the greater expat community is English. As the pool of languages involved becomes wider, the opportunities for input in each of these languages are reduced. Secondly, access to means to maintain minority languages can be a challenge. While it is easy enough to find people to provide input in English, or French, or even Spanish, it can be more difficult to find or establish a community of practice in lesser-represented languages. Without the crucial adequate input in the Mother Tongue(s), there is a risk that the child will not maintain a successful level, and therefore will not become a successful bilingual. Whatever subsequent language choices we make for our children, the maintenance of their Mother Tongues (s) – the language they have heard from birth –is absolutely critical. The choice to forfeit a Mother Tongue in favour of a more “useful” language generally leads to cognitive disadvantages for the child, and should not be considered an option.

Let’s look at two different language situations, and see how these families’ needs can be met.

The first case is a French-Italian bilingual family moving to The Hague. Upon arrival, the children have had adequate input in both languages – Italian from the father, and French from the mother. The decision is made to place the students in a French school, which guarantees that continued adequate input for French will be achieved. However, this leaves the father as the only source of Italian, and like many expat working parents, he works long hours and travels frequently. How then can this family ensure that their children maintain their Italian as a Mother Tongue? One possibility is that the mother, if capable and willing, starts speaking Italian to the children outside school hours. If this is not possible, then the family needs to carefully plan for ways to incorporate Italian into their daily lives. This can happen by means of a babysitter, activities with Italian speaking children and families, and maintenance of strong and frequent contact with Italian-speaking family.

A second case is a family arriving with children who speak Twi (an African language) and Spanish. This family decides to place their children in an English-language school, thus increasing the language load to three necessary languages. Again, it can be accepted that the English at school should be adequate input for the language needs of the children, but this leaves the after-school hours and weekends to maintain two other languages. For this family, finding the resources to support the Mother Tongues is a difficult task. Again, real-world interaction with speakers of these languages is crucial to success. Finding or establishing communities of practice, either within The Hague or extending to other areas, is a necessity. Ensuring that the children have the resources and support necessary to learn to read and write both languages is also critical – as they have access to the written word and books in these languages, they increase opportunities for the cognitive processes necessary for successful language maintenance.

The bottom line is that bilingualism is a goal worth striving for, but for many families, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Successful bilingualism involves planning on the part of the parents, and a commitment to ensuring that our children maintain their Mother Tongue and successfully acquire the other languages we choose for them.

So, what is Mother Tongue?

I’ve just finished writing an article on maintaining Mother Tongue (for a new publication called The Underground, out in The Hague in November) and it started me thinking about the sometimes sticky topic of Mother Tongue. This is a subject that comes up often in the question period of my seminars. Historically, of course, Mother Tongue was the language spoken by the mother, and was likely to be the child’s strongest language. In the world of language research now, this term has been replaced with the more objective L1 (Language 1) and L2 (and L3, and so on…). So, what constitutes an L1? For those of us who were raised as monolinguals, L1 is the language we have heard since birth. For those who were raised as bilinguals, the term L1 actually applies to *both* of the languages heard from birth (or, arguably, from very young). For these lucky people, L2 designates any language learned later in life. It seems counter-intuitive to refer to two languages as “L1″, but in fact, this is a dual-L1, and in old-speak we would say that these people have a double Mother-Tongue. This is an important point to remember for discussions on maintenance and promotion of L1, which I will come to in later posts.

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