Last night I had the pleasure of spending the evening with a very diverse group of parents. All of them had children who will grow up with two languages, and many had children growing up with three or more languages. A few of the families are lucky enough to have multilingual partners, who speak each other’s languages and can use a variety of bilingual strategies. However, most bilingual families, mine included, have parents who share one common language, but do not master the language of their partner. In a lot of these situations, each parent speaks his/her language to the child, and together they speak English. This dynamic makes it trickier to support a minority language, because it can be used only by one parent.
Last night there were several parents who are transmitting to their children minority languages with small numbers of speakers. The hard task in front of these parents is not only how to provide enough language input for the children to acquire the language, but they also have to try and support the status of the language, so the children will want to speak it. The question then is what tools and techniques can parents use to promote the acquisition and use of a language which seems insignificant in a child’s world. Without visible institutional and community support (TV, school classes, community groups) it can be a daunting task.
One of the most valuable sources of support comes from within families. Having the dominant-language partner involve themselves in the process of supporting the minority language sends a powerful message to the children about language status and language usefulness. For example, if the mother is the only Polish speaker (Hi Olga!), the father may not be able to learn to speak Polish fluently (no time, aptitude, desire or other), but he can certainly enter into the discussion about why Polish is useful and a good thing to learn. He can also learn a few words of Polish – either from his wife or from the children – to engage in some some small way with the minority language. Even if it’s just learning how to say “I love you” and “good night”, it’s a visible and tangible reminder of the place of Polish in family life, and that Polish is valued by both parents.
So, if you are a family with a very minor minority language, consider how your actions may be helping or hindering the place of that language in your children’s eyes and think about what steps you can take to create a home in which all languages are valued and supported.