This question comes up a lot in our work with families when supporting them to set up a Family Language Policy. It is a common query with caregivers who, for example, are keen on speaking the other parent’s language with their child at home (e.g., by adopting the ‘Minority Language at Home’ Strategy), helping them with the school language or who want to raise their child in a language that is not their first. But they are wary of so many things, such as:
- their non-native-like pronunciation
- the fact that their language level is not on par with their first language, or
- their lack of the advanced vocabulary, idiomatic or grammatical knowledge they have in their first language.
That’s one of the things we are really good at as parents – worrying about our children. And the idea that, if we were to raise a child in a language that is not our native, we might be making a huge mistake that will impair their language development or worse – scar them – is simply something we are not ready to toy with.
This issue has been on my mind lately and it’s coming up a lot in my work and in conversations with colleagues and friends. Parents who have a good command of a language want to pass that language to their child but are terrified to do so and it can be rather frustrating. Especially if they have an emotional connection with that language.
Why is that? I think, a part of the obsession with native speakerism in this context is closely connected with a yearning to be perfect in a society that does not condone anything but; with the notion that bilinguals are supposed to be two or more monolinguals in one and that the monolingual speaker of a language is the universal norm. The highly idolised native speaker has become a symbol of language perfection (if being perfect in any language is even possible!). By default, parents want the best for their children and passing on an ‘imperfect’ level of a language often does not align with that goal. The illusion of ‘controlling’ that choice on our quest to prepare our children as best as we can for the future provides us with a perceived sense of certainty that is often lacking on our parental journey.
When we talk about native speakers, we need to be clear on one point – which native speaker exactly? Let’s take English, for example. There are so many varieties of that language and a myriad of accents that go with them, so how do we choose? What is the decisive factor and why? Let’s sit with this question for a bit. It can be confusing, can’t it?! A lot of caregivers also consider having a native-like accent a fundamental aspect of language learning. This leads them to opt out of raising a child in a language that is not their native. But is a native-like accent so important? One of my Applied Linguistics professors used to tell us that we should not worry about accents as much and she was right. Her advice made such a big impression on me and is still stuck in my mind because 20 years ago I also considered it an absolutely crucial aspect of language learning. It is not unimportant but definitely not at the top of the list. After all, everybody has an accent – every native speaker of a language has their own accent. And what is even more important – an accent is a part of a person’s identity, which should not be underestimated, especially as our children mature and develop their own identity. What we really need to think about here is what is more important – developing fluency and being able to communicate and express ourselves freely or focusing on more ‘superficial’ aspects such as an accent.
Something that we tell our clients, as Prof. François Grosjean also points out, is that, to become a successful bilingual, a child needs to have a purpose and a context for learning and sustaining a language. Whether it is for school, daycare, after-school activities or communicating with extended family, if a child has a meaningful answer to the question ‘Why do I have to do this?’, odds are in favour of bilingualism. Providing meaningful motivation is one part of the puzzle, regardless of whether one is a native speaker of a language or not. And, yes, you can speak to your child in a language you have a great command of but is not your mother tongue and you do not have to be ‘perfect’ in it. What is important are the following points:
- Emotional connection with your child
Language is emotion and your parent-child bond is above anything else. Instead of thinking about native-like proficiency, think about these questions, for example:
- Can you relate to the language in question emotionally?
- Do you feel comfortable forming relationships in that language?
- Can you express your feelings in that language?
- Do you feel like ‘yourself’ when speaking that language?
These considerations are much more important when deciding which language to speak to your children and trump accent, making occasional mistakes or having the vocabulary you need all the time.
- Amount of input
As I’ve written before, input is the holy grail of language learning. Therefore, you need to consider how to support the language you have decided to use with your children within the framework of your Family Language Plan – what are your goals for that language and how you will provide for them to be achieved. Depending on your situation – where you live, your community, school and societal language – this might require different levels of planning.
And I agree with the idea of potentially scarring our children that I mentioned earlier, but from a totally different perspective. One can scar a child for life by letting them believe that language skills which are not to native-speaker standards are not valuable and advantageous, that no matter how hard you try, if your command is not on the level of some mythical monolingual speaker, it is simply not good enough. That is not true!
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