While many parents struggle to find opportunities for bilingualism for their children (particularly in the English-speaking world) in some cases, parents have a plethora of languages from which to choose. Following on my last post, what is a parent to do when they have more than one choice of language to pass on to their children? The answer, for most people, is easy – choose the “most useful” language. In reality though, that is not always the right choice.
In many places in the world where societal bilingualism is practiced, people grow up mastering languages that have differing usefulness in different circumstances. For example, in the Philippines, large numbers grow up with a local language or dialect, such as Illocano, the major language of the region, such as Tagalog, and often a third, colonial-based language, such as English. In such a case, which language is a parent to prioritize? Another example, from the European perspective, is the large numbers of people who grow up speaking a “dialect” and a main language, such as Lombard and Italian in Italy, or Cypriot Greek and Greek in Cyprus. In all of these cases, parents are generally pushed to choose the major language to pass on to their child. Reasons vary, but is generally considered that the language that gets you the most bang for your buck is the one to choose.
I would argue that while this may sometimes be the case, it is certainly not always the case. Language is not only a method of communication, but also a means of cultural transfer, and a way of thinking and being. A parent who feels very strongly identified with the culture represented by their minority language or dialect would be better off choosing this language to pass on to their children. One aspect to consider is “What language makes you truly YOU?”? Choosing a language that you do not identify fully with and embrace may hinder your communication with your children, and in the long-run, you may regret that they don’t share the language that is closest to your heart.
This is often one of the reasons cited for telling parents not to speak a language to their children that is not their “Mother Tongue”. The concept of Mother Tongue is, for many reasons, flawed (that’s another post for another day), and the idea that the only language you can/should pass to your children is your “first” language is also flawed. I am an English speaker (only) by birth, but learned French, to a native-speaker level (oral/aural) as an adult. Yet I chose to speak to my children in French. I lived in French for almost a dozen years, in Quebec and in France, and for most of those years the main relationships/friendships in my life were in French. I felt thoroughly comfortable and completely “myself” in French, and I wanted my children to be bilingual and to master both of Canada’s official languages. I did, of course, take into account the aspects of our family language plan that I could not achieve for my children regarding French, which is why they attend a French school now. I’ve had no difficulties bonding with my children or communicating with them fully, despite the fact that French is not my “Mother Tongue” and other parents can and have done the same.
The bottom line is that there is no right answer to the question of what is the “right” language to choose to pass on to your children if you are a bilingual/multilingual parent. You need to consider not only usefulness, in terms of number of speakers, but also your own relationship with the languages/dialects you speak and the cultures attached to them. If you choose for a minor language or dialect, defending your choice will probably be a common occurrence, or now you can just send them to read this post…