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.

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