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.

11 thoughts on “Language Status: How cool is your language?

  1. Chris Drew says:

    Hello. Enjoying the blog! Raising two bilingual girls here in France. One aspect in all of this is the level of language of the actual language teacher. Whilst English is definitely a ‘high-status’ language here is France, the problem can come when the kids have a better level of English than the teachers. I’ve been hearing stories this morning of ‘proper’ bilingual kids who were told by English teachers that their English was rubbish. That is a slightly worrying phenomenon! I also get ‘phone calls from parents who realise the errors being made by teachers, but need to be reassured themselves. Often this can come about (in primary schools) beacuse teachers are being forced to teach English, despite having little or no training. All of this to say that the ‘home’ language can be undermined by the world outside – and that parents of bilingual children need to be very aware of this.

    • Olga @The EuropeanMama says:

      It might also have to do with French teachers who are used to having the highest authority and being obeyed- they don’t like the idea of students being better than themselves. Maybe the parents can find a way to talk to the school- after all they are not alone in this, and if anything, situations like this will only increase!

    • eacrisfield says:

      Hi Chris – I’ve worked in France and my kids go to a Lycee, so I know of what you speak… 🙂
      Unfortunately, there are still prejudices about what variety of English is the “best” and those come out in the classroom, when children are bilingual but don’t speak the “right” French. I had a colleague in France who was American, and had trouble passing the CAPES in English, because he spoke “American” English…
      I taught at the post-secondary level – I can only imagine what it is like in primary. My oldest daughter is in CM1, and this is the first year she has had an English teacher who is truly fluent – it’s definitely the exception rather than the rule. My only advice to parents is to have low expectations of what their children will learn in English class as school – my priority for my daughter was that she was enjoying it, rather than learning anything. We supplemented at home with a lot of reading in English and some grammar/spelling resources as well from about 8-years old.

  2. Olga @The EuropeanMama says:

    Thank you for this post! It totally affects m as I am a native speaker of Polish. My children are also getting “competition” from German which is the language of communication between me and my husband, and the children know that I speak it as well on a very high level. I have already figured out how to help boost their Polish, but I’m wondering about the “secret language” thing- can’t it be seen as a positive thing- as our secret language that my children can use with me when they don’t want to be understood by others? Luckily I feel that the attitudes towards low status languages are changing with changing stereotypes of people speaking it: Polish people have a more positive image now than they used to, contrary to what the likes of Geert Wilders are trying to achieve. This is actually one of the reasons I’m speaking Polish with me girls- to prove stereotypes wrong.

  3. Sally-Jayne says:

    This is a really interesting article and just shows that we should encourage all children to celebrate whatever language skills they have, no matter what their home language is.

    I have reblogged this on my blog.

  4. expatsincebirth says:

    Thank you for this post. This is a very important point. If you don’t find the appropriate social and linguistical context to stimulate your child to use, appreciate and learn the language, it’s very hard – and sometimes even impossible. Anyway, every non-natural context can have negative effects too. If the context the child is exposed is “forced”, the child can easily refuse to speak the language.


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