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.

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9 thoughts on “Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

  1. Great post, and topic I;ve been thikning about myself, especially I have read that children who learn 3 or more languages don’t pass the third language on to their children, and so it gets lost in the second or third generation- I am of course thinking about Polish. Howerver, I come from a family where multilingualism is a tradition- I think my children are like the 4th generation of multilinguals.And I also think it has to do with the fact that all these generations of my family… were expats at some points, with my grandparents working as diplomats, and raising their children in another country with multiple language.I was raised with German since I was a child. Also, many expat children become expats themselves- and I think more and more people become expats for the sake of work, or adventure or whatever. So, maybe we will see an increase of multilingualism in the future?

  2. Thank you for yet another interesting post.
    I am currently reading a book by David E. Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken “Third Culture Kids – Growing Up Among Worlds”. Without going into detail, one of the aspects of this book is to demonstrate that Third Culture Kids will constitute bigger and bigger part of a contemporary society (ies) than in the past, that it’s actually nothing new but it gets more attention also due to the fact that more TCK’s or adults who were TCK’s, are a part of public life, showbusiness, politics (to mention President Obama, as an example of multiracial, multinational individual from his heritage). I think bi- or multilingualism will get more exposure in time to come, even though it is nothing new either. But the level of knowledge for families who deal with multilingualism, information, and support for planning their family future better and making more conscious and educated choices for their children, might indeed make a difference. Exciting thing, though, is the fact that this is a work – as we say in Poland: ‘na zywym organizmie’ – on a material that is very much alive, changing, individual and exposed to many variables, therefore there will never be only one and only right approach to handling multilingualism and multiculturalism. We as parents, can support ourselves with research and theories, but it’s up to us to implement the best in our kids’s minds, which can be then transferred to their own kids. The quote that I saw lately, and really like it, says: “There are two things we should give our children; One is roots and the other is wings”. I will not hesitate to make most effort in order to provide both on cultural and linguistic level.

    • That is a great book – it’s helped me be more at peace with our decision to raise our kids as expats. I do think that bilingualism is getting “better press” in certain circles, but I think that we are still lagging on promoting successful bilingualism in lower status languages communities, especially immigrant communities.

  3. Love this post! I speak 3 languages learning my 4th, Spanish being my native language. I have a 15month old and I’m trying hard to not only speak to him in Spanish all day, but purchase toys and books in spanish. But living in the US is hard in the sense that you’re right the language status is definitely a problem, but this is very encouraging! Thank you for posting!

  4. Thank you for this post! The situation of the Spanish immigrants is very similar to the situation of Italian immigrants in Switzerland and Germany. In Switzerland we observed something similar with Italian immigrants who left Italy in the 50ies-60ies. Their children grew up in Switzerland and had to adapt to the local language(s) and even if one of the national languages in CH is Italian, lots of the Italian children in the northern part of Switzerland (i.e. German speaking part, but also in the French speaking part) did “loose” their Italian when staying in the country and they often are not proficient enough to pass it to their children. In the Seventies/Eighties the Italian those children spoke was called “kitchen-Italian” in some linguistic studies, because the vocabulary they shared with their mothers at home was limited to the “kitchen”. Italians from the same generation (in the 50ies and 60ies) also came to Germany. They often settled in small cities, where they had to adapt even more in order to “fit in”, to be accepted by the locals. A considerable part of these families did have restaurants and pizzerias, so they did depend on the acceptance by the locals; many of them were also immigrant workers, the so called “Gastarbeiter”. They often came from small villages in Italy and spoke the local dialects or regional variant of Italian. They didn’t really connect with many locals, so they considered their original language as very weak and “not worth to be learned”. Therefore they didn’t pass it to their children. These children often stayed in the country, often married locals and only speak German to their children. At the moment there is a debate In Switzerland wether to teach Italian in the non-Italian regions… And in Germany you don’t find any normal public school teaching Italian. English, yes, also French sometimes, but Italian?… Only in International Schools. – If you’re interested in more information about Languages in Schools in Europe, I can recommend this site: http://languagerichblog.eu/

  5. Growing up in Quebec in the 70s to 90s, during the Parti Quebecois governance, the French language was heavily instituted in the English education system, to the chagrin of narrow minded Anglophones . Being bilingual gave me a great amount of movement in Canada as bilingualism outisde of Quebec offered higher pay, plus an advantage in graduate studies. During my Masters at U of T, I needed to show proficiency in another modern language other than English. Translating a passage of a French academic article felt second nature, whereas my monolingual Canadian colleagues had to take a course prior to the competecy test. As a professor in Higher Education, I see the higher levels of English written skills amongst immigrants whereas as naturalized (2nd/3rd generation) struggle to write a complete sentence, and a clear idea. I firmly believe that bilingualism, and multilingualism, benefit a nation. Western Europe has consistently had higher education scores than North America, and it is a continent where a great portion of its citizens arefunctionally bilingual. Monolingual attitdues stem from a colonial attitude of superiority over another culture: language skills needs to be part of the education system, and one way to ensure language skill proficiency is by nurturing bilingualism.

    Thank you for writing about this. I’m considering using it as a research project for my critical thinking subjects.

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