I’ve been promising for years to write a post about pedagogical translanguaging. In fact, probably about five years! But I always get stuck in the details… I want to present it accurately, and really show how it works. So I created (with the help of Ollydave) this short explainer video, so people can have a 2-minute introduction to a complex topic. Click on the picture above and enjoy!
… the real issue is not whether they should become bilingual, but how to best support them in their life with two or more languages. (E. Kay-Raining Bird)
I’ve written about the topic quite a few times over the years, because it is one that causes parents great concern. It is also a topic where misinformation is rife – one of the most common pieces of poor advice that parents get is from speech and language therapists, telling them their child is language delayed because they are bilingual. This is an incorrect presumption, but all too common. The following advice is almost always to drop a language, and of course, the language to be dropped is one of the home languages. The potential consequences for a child losing access to a language they have been exposed to all their life range from social isolation within the family to insufficient cognitive development, but they are always significant and avoidable. The article linked below is an interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, who has been researching bilingualism in children with three different profiles: SLI (Specific Language Impairment), Down’s Syndrome, and ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders).
The full article is on Francois Grosjean’s great blog Life as a Bilingual.
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.
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.
This is revised from a previous post, and is for all the Dads out there wondering why they are being left out of the party…
Traditionally, bilingualism research used the term “Mother Tongue” to describe the language spoken by the mother. Because there is no use of “Father Tongue” there is an implication that the language that the father speaks is of lesser importance. Is this true? Is the “mother tongue” more important? The answer is, of course, “no”. The language spoken by each of the parents is important to the child, and both should be acquired.
“Mother tongue” is important, but “Father tongue” is important too. It is still a fact that more mothers stay home with their children while fathers work than the opposite (at least with the families I work with) so very often the “father tongue” needs more attention and planning than the language spoken by the mother. In order to help out all the dads who worry about passing their language on to their children, here are some tips.
The most important kind of input for language is “infant directed speech” (IDS). This is when we talk to babies, looking at them directly, and using simple, clear language. This does *not* have to be “baby talk”! In the early months (yes, I said months), spend time, every day, speaking directly to your baby. Consider mixed input, where you are showing them things and talking about the items, consider telling little, easy stories. Consider talking to them about body parts, clothing, food etc – items that are concrete and in their environment.
Never underestimate the importance of “Daddy Story Time”. Read to your little one every day, using simple books, and drawing their attention to items in the stories. Increase the amount of interaction as they get older and more able. Use longer, more complex stories to stimulate cognitive growth and conversation in your language, and take time to talk about vocabulary.
*Don’t* expect that Mama putting on a DVD in your language during the day will help your children – this is not IDS, and it is not helpful for language acquisition. You have to do this yourself!
Many families I have worked with have classified the father as “not a talker” and discussed how much the Dad struggles to interact on a regular, meaningful basis with a baby or small child. Often these Dads were tired after a long day of work, and spend a very limited amount of time with their young children. These are all understandable facts of modern life, but the bottom line is if you want your children to have their “Father Tongue” then it is the father’s job to pass it on – take that job seriously!
Our parents are very demanding and want to havea teacher who speaks Oxford English without any accent or so.
People (unfortunately, sometimes including specialists) often like to lay the blame for language delays or special educational issues on the doorstep of bilingualism. A child having more than one language is seen, too often, as a “problem” and therefore language is seen as the cause of other “problems”. And of course, if bilingualism is the cause, then the answer is monolingualism – taking away one or more languages is seen as a quick fix for a many problems
Here is a short list of myths about bilingualism and language/educational development:
1. You are told that your toddler “doesn’t have enough words” and may be delayed because they are bilingual. Everyone knows that bilingual children start talking later, right? Wrong! Bilingual children do not, on average, develop language later than monolinguals. What they do have is a different vocabulary development trajectory. Bilingual kids don’t develop a word in each of their languages for the same object, at the same time. They develop words from the contexts in which they hear them. So, if the Spanish-speaking father feeds the child every day, they are likely to have mainly Spanish words for eating-related concepts. If the child goes to day care in Dutch, they learn appropriate Dutch vocabulary for that situation, and not in Spanish. So what often happens is that people (parents, professionals) look at the number of words *in one language* and declare that the child is slow, or delayed. In fact, until about four years old, you need to look at the total of words in all languages to get an accurate count. After this age, most bilinguals do actually know “all the words” (or most of them) in both languages, which would effectively mean that they have DOUBLE the vocabulary of a monolingual child (but nobody ever talks about that…).
2. Your child is diagnosed with a speech/language delay and you are told that bilingualism is the cause. It is not true that being raised bilingual causes a speech delay. If a child has a delay in speech and/or language, they would have that same delay even if they were only being raised with one language. Speech and language delays can have many causes, mostly neurological or physiological, but bilingualism is never a cause of delay. If you have a child with a diagnosed delay, the best path is therapy through both languages, so that they can improve in both languages. Dropping a language is (almost) never the right choice. 2Languages2Worlds has a good research-based set of information on these topics.
3. Your child is diagnosed with special educational needs (ADHD, ASD, PDD-NOS or other). You are told that having two languages (or more) is “too much” and it is affecting your child’s behaviour and is the cause, or contributing to, their diagnosis. Again, not true. It is true that sometimes bilingual children struggle with communication in one of their languages, or show frustration in the process, and act out. It is not true that having more than one language causes systemic behavioural or neurological issues. It’s also not true that removing a language will fix the “problem” (hearing a theme here?). It is true that you need to find the right professional to work with a bilingual child in terms of therapy, so that you know that the “whole child” is being seen, rather than only one side.
4. Children with special educational needs can’t become bilingual, it’s too hard, so don’t even bother. And again, not true. Kids with a wide variety of SEN (Down’s Syndrome, ASD, other cognitive functioning diagnoses) can and do become bilingual, in situations where they need both of their languages. It’s a very hard subject to research, because every child with SEN is completely individual in their talents and challenges and unique possibilities, but some preliminary research on children with Down’s Syndrome has shown that in fact they can do just as well with two languages as with one. (see more information here
In short, threats of delays and disturbances should no longer be a part of the discussion on bilingualism. We need to spread the word that becoming bilingual is not harmful, and that it does not cause our children to be delayed or troubled. We need to recognize that bilingual children are as likely as monolingual children to struggle with speech or language delays or with educational challenges. Not more likely, as likely. And we need to recognize that, like for any other child facing a challenge, there is not an easy solution, and certainly removing a language is not an easy solution.