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.