Promoting home language use: How do we make a difference?

When I was in Hong Kong last week and meeting with parents and teachers, the subject of discussion was often the issues raised in my previous blog post about HK parents choosing to speak English with their children rather than Cantonese. Inevitably, someone would ask how we can change this pattern of choosing the higher-status English over the natural mother tongue of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong families. It’s certainly not a problem unique to Hong Kong, I’ve had similar discussions about Arabic in the UAE, Kiswahili in Kenya, and Dutch in international schools in the Netherlands, just to name a few. Although these languages and situations may seem unrelated and distant, in fact the pathways to making a difference are very similar.

How families can make a difference:

Make sure you are addressing the various languages in your family and your environment with your children, and having positive discussions about the role of each. No matter how long you will be in a country, and whether or not you personally choose to learn any of the language, you can make a difference for your child by being positive about their opportunities to learn and use another language, if only briefly. Model positive attitudes about all languages, whether you can speak them or not, and model making an effort to communicate with others – we can all learn to say “Hello, how are you?” or “Thank you” in other languages, and if we expect it of our children we should surely be willing ourselves.

If you are a parent passing on a minority or low-status language, be firm in your own belief about the usefulness and benefit of your language, and pass this belief on to your children. They need to know that the parents’ languages have value, no matter what other people say, and they will be able to use these languages to access their own heritage. Praise them for their efforts in using multiple languages, and acknowledge to them the hard work they are doing!

How teachers can make a difference:

Show, through your words and actions, that all the languages of the children in your classes are equal in value and status. Practice language-integration in your classroom, by varying the language of greetings, taking the roll, and other classroom routines. If children are unable to answer questions or respond in the school language, let them do it in their own language and then use the resources available to you (other students, teaching assistants, technology) to translate the answer if necessary. In areas where the local language is perceived as being of lesser status than the school language, address this issue in class, to let the children know that you value their language and support them in continuing to use and grow in that language.

How administrators and policy makers can make a difference: 

Create in-school (and community) environments in which language diversity is celebrated rather than discouraged or shamed. Provide staff (teaching and support) with adequate professional development to understand bilingualism in development and how to support students who are learning language while also learning content in the classroom. If “every teacher is a language teacher” in your school, make sure you are giving the teachers the knowledge and tools they need to fulfill that role. Create a school language policy that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that creates spaces in the school for the students to develop their home languages as well. This can be metaphorical space, in the classrooms, or physical space, for home language/mother tongue teaching. And when staffing these programs, ensure that the pedagogy and methodology of these lessons is a good fit for the mission and vision of the school and the daily school experiences of the students – the quality of the programs and the alignment with the school curriculum sends a powerful message to students and families about the value of their languages.

And finally, the most difficult aspect… consider carefully the value of language-based requirements for school entry. Many parents make decisions about language use with their children based on what school/schools they hope to have them attend. However, a child who “speaks English” at home with their parents who are not fluent speakers of the language is not necessarily better set up for success in an English-language school than a child who speaks no English but arrives at school with a well-developed home language/mother tongue (and the latter child is easier to provide support for in many ways).

How the government can make a difference (why not aim high?): 

Have knowledge about language development, bilingual language development and the importance of home languages/mother tongue as a fundamental part of any support or information you provide for parents and parents-to-be. Ensure that all professionals who work with young families (pediatricians, nurses, child care workers, etc.) also have accurate information about these topics, so they can advise parents accurately; they are the front-line for parental support and they need to be able to convince parents to make the right decisions. Engage the community in discussions on language use and development – blog, tweet, spread the word in whatever ways work in your community. The more knowledge and support parents, educators, professionals, have about language development and bilingual language development the more the children in your communities will become successfully bilingual and able to participate fully in education and society.

The bottom line is that in complex language situations, there is no one stakeholder who can make all the difference. Each parent, teacher, administrator, policy-maker, has a role to play in changing the linguistic landscape to create together an environment in which the language priorities for children – parents’ languages, school language(s), community language(s), other languages – are clearly understood and supported.

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Waking up to a beautiful morning in Hong Kong!

This is a post that I wrote several months ago, and I am reposting it because I am once again in Hong Kong (Clearwater Bay School, the International Montessori School and LanguageOne HK) and I know this question will be an important one for many parents attending the Parents as Language Partners seminars. If you know someone facing this decision (for Cantonese or any other language) please share!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.

So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.

A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.

So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.

When Family Languages are in Conflict

A different language is a different vision of life.

  • Federico Fellini

The vast majority of families I have worked with over the years have been in agreement about the decision to raise their children as bilingual/multilingual. Usually they come to me for family language planning advice because they want to “get it right” and ensure that their children are able to use both languages of the parents, and other languages (school, community) as well. But every once in a while, I work with a family in a situation of language conflict; they can not agree on language goals or priorities for their children.

Sometimes, it’s a direct consequence of a divorce/separation which leaves the parents in disagreement about language priorities. As many things become contentious as a family dissolves, so too can bilingualism, and language choice become a serious issue. This is often the case when one parent feels that their language is “more important” than the other parent’s language, and needs to be the priority. Juggling two or more languages in a family home is often challenging, but stretching two or more languages across shared custody adds an additional level of difficulty.

I’ve also worked with intact families struggling with language issues, where one parent is not supportive of the other parent’s language choices. This is particularly hard to deal with as it also impacts the children’s views on language. It can be extremely divisive when parents do not understand or value each other’s language priorities. In these cases, it is often that one parent wants to use a dialect or minor language in place of a “more important” language, and that choice is not supported or encouraged by the partner or extended family, who feel there is no reason for the choice.

And finally, I’ve worked with families in which one parent simply does not like the language of the other, or doesn’t being “shut out” because they don’t understand the other language. This leads to pressure to shift towards monolingualism in the family, to alleviate the discomfort the monolingual parent feels when confronted with conversations they can not understand.  Again, this creates tension in the family that the children can feel, and they may often then choose to stop using the disputed language, in an attempt to “keep the peace”.

In all these cases, the red thread is generally language status. In multilingual families, there are often differing views about the status – high or low – of each language, and this is linked to the perception of usefulness. If a parent determines the usefulness of their partner’s language as being low, they are more inclined, in some cases, to consider that language a hindrance, rather than a benefit for their children and family. I see this most commonly when the father speaks a high-status or majority language, and the mother speaks a low-status or minority language, and in these cases the children very often end up losing the mother’s language, which is at the least detrimental to their bilingual potential, and at worst, detrimental to the parent-child relationship.

In all cases, when we choose to marry someone who speaks a different language than we do, and we choose to have children with them, we have a duty to support our partner in their language choices, and make a family language plan that addresses the need for each language. This means that language choice must be respected, and supported, regardless of personal opinion or personal comfort level with other languages. The language we choose to use – need to use – with our children is highly personal and strongly linked to our own backgrounds and families. Each parent must be given the opportunity to choose the language that they feel best able to parent in, and that choice should come from the heart, and not from the head, or from someone else’s judgement. This holds true as well after separation/divorce; families need to plan for the children to continue to grow in both parents’ languages, to ensure they remain connected to the part of their identity that is linked to that language/culture.

In all bilingual families, it’s important to start from a place of mutual respect and support, and the understanding that the languages of both parents are equally important for children, regardless of the immediate or eventual usefulness of the language.

Raising Bilingual Children: Parent seminar (Amsterdam)

A brief announcement that on Thursday, October 27, I will be returning to the Jacaranda Tree Montessori in Amsterdam, for an open seminar “Raising Bilingual Children: Six building blocks for success”. This is my most popular seminar, and mainly given at schools, so an open event is rare! In the two-hour session we will look at (a little) theory and practice, to help parents understand why they should pursue bilingualism (or multilingualism) for their children, what it takes to be successful, and how to make a plan to get them there. It’s always a fun evening (for me too!) and a chance for parents to meet others who are on the same journey with their children.

Registration at via the Jacaranda Tree Montessori website.

Throwback Thursday: Language Status: How cool is your language?

on raising bilingual children

I’ve written many, many posts about bilingualism over the years, and some I think deserve to be resurrected from the archives of my blog… last weekend I gave a seminar at the DRONGO Festival of Multilingualism in Utrecht, talking about bilingual education. People generally agree that bilingual education is a good thing when two “important” languages are involved, but as soon as we start talking about bilingual education involving immigrant minority languages, many people become uncomfortable. Why is that? It’s because of language status issues, described in this post from 2012.

One of the unfortunate realities of bilingualism is that success or failure is often determined by language status. Yes, it’s true, languages have “status”. Some languages are high status, some are low status, some are in the middle. It’s not an unchangeable rating – it depends on where you are and what other languages are involved. Here in the…

View original post 647 more words

Recovering heritage languages: rediscovering your “whole self”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about why “heritage” languages are important, which came out of conversations with families trying to pass on a language with little “usefulness” but great emotional significance. Some of the most emotional stories I’ve heard over the years have been from adults who should have been raised bilingual, but who are not bilingual. Sometimes their parents actively choose not to use a language; this is most common with low-status languages and dialects. Some parents tried but were given the advice to drop a “useless” language, and listened to that poor (but oh, so common) advice. Some parents tried and persevered but didn’t have enough of a support system, or had a child who was just too resistant, so they eventually let it go. Whatever the reason, the end results are the same: loss of a language and loss of a cultural connection.

This affects people in different ways, but I’ve heard from many that they feel uncomfortable traveling to their “home country” because people expect them to be able to speak the language. I’ve heard that they get mocked when they do try to use the language, because they “sound like children”. And I’ve heard that they just never go anywhere where that language will be used, because they feel too guilty about not being able to speak it.

Now, I am sure that there are many adults out there who lost a family language and have no regrets, but of course, those are not the people I hear from. But for those dealing with this issue, it can feel isolating to not be able to talk to extended family, it can feel shameful – to look like something that you are not – and it can feel insurmountable. So the question I am often faced with is: “How can I get back my mother tongue?”. The answer, of course, is you can’t. You can not start over again from birth and get it right the second time through. What you can do, if it matters to you, is start again from where you are now.

One of the biggest hurdles for trying to learn your “mother tongue” as an adult can be the people who are trying to be helpful. Your aunt, who likes to correct you every time you pronounce something incorrectly, your grandmother, who compares you to your cousins who are “so much better” than you, your cousin who switches to English with you out of politeness or impatience. Family members, while well-meaning, are sometimes not very effective as a language-learning support system.

So who can help you? One of the best resources is people who speak the language fluently, but have no emotional connection to how well you speak it. I’ve seen many adults benefit immensely from “language partnerships” – you have a mutually beneficial relationship where both have a language the other wants to improve, so you help each other. It’s not always easy to find a fluent speaker of your heritage language, but if you have a local college or university, the International Students Office is a good place to start. I’ve also seen success with families who bring in a child minder who speaks the heritage language, and the parent learns alongside the children (and even better – the other parent too!).

But of course the most successful method is to arrange for a full language-immersion. I’ve not seen many try with this method, because the logistics are sometimes overwhelming or impossible. But taking a “gap year” from whatever is your normal life and moving “back” to the land of your heritage language can be the best way to improve quickly and to discover, or rediscover a connection with your cultural identity.

Whichever route you choose, please do take the time to share your story with other families in the same situation. Letting parents know that someday their child may want to know their language might make the difference for someone else.

LKALE on stage: The Bangor International Conference on Bilingualism in Education

I wrote this post on a round table I co-hosted with four other members of the Language and Linguistics in Education research group. We are all working on the critical issue of teacher knowledge for the task of teaching language alongside content in schools. Enjoy!

Linguistics and Knowledge about Language in Education

by Eowyn Crisfield

To round off the 2015-2016 academic year, five LKALE members hosted a round table at the first Bangor International Conference on Bilingualism in Education. Convened by Urszula Clark, the round table entitled “Teaching with and for diversity: What teachers need to know about language and how researchers can (and should!) support them” addressed key aspects of LKALE’s mission to broaden teacher knowledge about linguistics and how it influences classroom learning.
The round table was opened by Eowyn Crisfield, with a paper that contextualised the common mantra “Every teacher is a language teacher”. Eowyn explored the types of training that “language teachers” receive, and compared to the skills needed by regular classroom teachers in order to function as language teachers alongside their roles as subject teachers. She discussed results of a teacher-training pilot project and findings that indicate that targeted INSET can make a difference in both attitudes…

View original post 578 more words