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.

Keeping the window open: why “heritage” languages are important too

I feel like I can not be half of myself.

I’ve heard variations of those words so many times over my career as a consultant, from adults all over the world, all referencing the fact that they do not speak the language of one (or both) of their parents. Many of them are children of immigrants who chose not to pass on their own “mother tongue”, because it wasn’t useful, because they were told not to, because they wanted their child to “fit in” to their new home, just… because. The adults expressing this sentiment to me come from all kinds of language backgrounds, but what they have in common is a sense of loss. For some it is a loss of potential:

“I could have been bilingual!”.

For some it is a loss of history:

“No one in our family can speak my grandmother’s language now.”.

And for some it is a loss of identity:

“When I go to my parents’ home country I am a foreigner.”.

No matter what the reasons, they all feel that they have missed out on, and are missing out on, something critical to their sense of self. As parents, we make the best choices we can for our children, and hope they were the right choices. In the case of heritage, or family, languages, it can seem too hard to keep using them with reluctant children, too much effort for no good reason. Many children go through phases (sometimes years long!) when they resist using the minority language, opting for the easier option, or the more acceptable option. Faced with resistance, even the most dedicated parents can lose their way and eventually shift to only the majority language as well.

So is it really worth it to keep using a language that your child doesn’t really need, may never use? From the voices of the now-adult children, yes, it is worth it. We can never predict where our children may want to go in their lives. Those of us raising children with complex cultural identities can not know what our children will eventually attach to, which side or facet of “self” they want to live with or live in. Choosing to not pass on a heritage language – a language that connects our children with their family, history, own story – eliminates a choice for them, and limits their ability to explore their sense of self from all angles.

So yes, it is worth it to keep using your language with your child, even when they refuse to speak it back to you. It is worth it to try and create a real or virtual community of practice so that your child can experience all of their cultural possibilities. It is worth it to do your best to keep the window open, so your child has the potential to grow up to be a speaker of that language if they choose, and to be a part of that culture.

If you are an adult who wants to speak your heritage language better, stay tuned for my next post.

If you are a parent who us trying to pass on a minority language, here are some previous posts that you may find helpful:

#IMLD: Whole-family support for (very minor) minority languages

Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

“But she won’t speak *my* language…”

Learning from the past?

Aboriginal people have a right to language. Unless we do something in this generation the languages will die in the next generation — the generation of my daughter.

— Lorena Fontaine, PhD student at the University of Manitoba

As a Canadian living abroad, I tend to focus on all the good things about our history and have an admittedly Pollyanna view of my passport country, including about educational issues. Yesterday, while commuting to work, I came up against a less savoury side of Canadian educational history. Listening to a CBC Ideas podcast, Undoing Linguicide, brought me face to face with the stories of the First Nations children who were taken away from their parents, over a period of more than a century, and sent to residential schools whose mandate was to eliminate the “indian” cultures and languages. Not only was this a barbaric idea, but the practices were barbaric as well, with schools functioning with rules that systematically separated siblings and punished heavily for the use of aboriginal languages. Lorena Fontaine, the lawyer/researcher featured in the program, is attempting to prove a case that the indigenous communities in Canada have a right to the survival of their languages, and to governmental support to reestablish what has been almost lost due to the residential school system. The history is complex and the podcast well worth listening to, as I can’t do their whole story justice. And of course, it’s a story that has been repeated in many places and times around the world, to many groups of indigenous peoples, it happened in France with the suppression of regional languages, and in Wales with the “Welsh Not” for children who dared to speak Welsh in schools, and many more.

In an era where hindsight has shown us that these practices were not acceptable and in an era of truth and reconciliation commissions and efforts to revive many endangered minority languages, it would seem that we have learned our lesson. Sadly, this is not entirely the case. Linguistic suppression does still happen, and although its guises are generally more subtle, it still is the same thing – prioritising one language as the “right” language, and other languages as “wrong”. It happens in schools where children and parents are told that their languages, their mother tongues, their home languages, are not acceptable. It happens in post-colonial Africa, where children are not allowed tuition in their own languages but instead forced to learn through a colonial language that they do not know. It happens in Suriname, where children need to go to school in Dutch – a language that they do not speak, they do not need, and is not a part of their world, but is considered to be a better vehicle for education than their own languages. It happens in international schools where children are told that they can play in their own languages, but must only use the school language in the classroom.

The agenda may not be as overt, and the punishments may no longer be physical, but for minority language speaking children, the results are the same. Minority languages, immigrant languages, refugee languages, hold no power in schools and children know this. And they abandon, by choice or by force, the language that they need to develop cognitively, to learn with, to connect with their families, their culture, their history.

So apparently, the lessons of history are far more easily forgotten than learned.



#IMLD: When the Mother Tongue becomes a minority language: Changing your family plan

This post was inspired by a reader question, and fits well with the theme of the month, so I am putting my thoughts in a post.

This family is from the Middle East, and has Arabic and English as the two languages in their language plan. They began their family in the Middle East and chose the OPOL approach, with the mother speaking in Arabic and the father in English (he is also a fluent Arabic speaker). After a move to the US, the children now have much more exposure to English than Arabic. The family will move back to the Middle East in a few years time.

So, the question being posed is “When should you change your family language plan, and how should it be done?”

A Family Language Plan is a dynamic document, not one written in stone. We make a plan based on our language goals for our children, and the best means to reach those goals in our present situation. The OPOL method is ideal for families who want to transmit two languages to their children, and have the possibility to have one parent use each language. However, in some cases it is quite clear which is the “mother tongue”. For this family, the mother tongue is Arabic – the language of both parents and their greater community and culture. English is a great addition to their children’s languages, but the priority must remain with the home language.

Because the family is now living in an English-dominant environment, it is important to balance the input of the two languages as much as possible, which means increasing the amount of Arabic spoken. There are two ways to do this. The first is to adopt a  “Minority Language at Home” (MLaH) approach. Using this method, both parents will speak to the children in Arabic at home, and in English outside the home, leading to clear divisions of the two languages. This method is beneficial because it allows the children to hear more Arabic, but still use the community language outside the house (English). A more strict variation is that the parents speak Arabic all the time to the children, inside and outside the house, and the children learn English from the community (play school, preschool and then school).

Which path to take depends very much on the parents. My preference would be for the children to hear as much Arabic as possible, and to not feel that Arabic is something they can only use “in private”. However, I am very much aware that using other languages in public, especially languages linked to controversial topics, can be uncomfortable in some situations. It’s a terrible world we live in when people are judged by their Mother Tongue, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that this type of prejudice doesn’t exist. So, each family needs to decide what language use they are comfortable with in the community in which they live.

Once the decision has been made for a change of plan, the next questions is “how” to change. In this case, it’s quite a simple transition for Dad to start speaking in Arabic with the children as well. There needs to be a family language discussion; even young children should be a part of the discussion when the language use changes – even a simple “Daddy is going to start speaking to you the same way Mummy does.” is a good beginning with a young child. Slightly older children can be given a more complete explanation about language – “Because we want you to be able to use both your languages very well, and so we need to use more X language to help you with that.”.

It is also beneficial to seek out other speakers of the minority language – parents and children – to help reinforce the message that the minority language isn’t only for home. Particularly when living in an English-speaking culture with English as the second language, as the pull towards “English-only” is strong for young children.

By ensuring a better balance of input in the two languages, the children should grow in both languages, and be able to reintegrate into Arabic-speaking life when the family returns to their home country. And once again, when the language situation has changed, the family can change their plan and go back to the OPOL method with the mother continuing in Arabic and the father returning to using English. The children will be old enough at the time of this transition to understand clearly the change in language use, and the reasons, and will probably be keen to keep up their English, so it will hopefully be a smooth and easy transition.

I wish you all the best with your bilingualism journey with your children!

#IMLD: Supporting languages at school


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I wrote this post at the end of the school year last year, the first year my children attended a European School. As both a professional in the field of bilingualism and as a parent of bilingual children, it was a year of reflection and growth for me in my understandings of a truly successful model that supports children in learning a new language at school, but also supports their need and desire to grow in their mother tongue. I share this post with you again, in the context of the International Mother Language Day campaign, and encourage you to share it wherever it may do some good – with your children’s teachers, with friends, with family. It’s a message that can not be overstated – a child’s mother tongue is a gift and a right and schools have a duty to support this in all their pupils, regardless of personal views of bilingualism or the value of other languages.
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#IMLD: Whole-family support for (very minor) minority languages

As a parent who is tasked with helping my children develop three high-status languages, I am acutely aware that even though I find my task difficult sometimes, there are parents who have to work much harder on their bilingual-family journey. These are the parents who speak a minority language with their children, one that has cultural and linguistic importance to them, but is not highly-regarded in the world in which they live. These parents have such a daunting task – many of them are the only person to speak their language to the children, and often resources such as books, television, websites etc. are difficult to impossible to find. To those parents, my hat goes off, and I offer you the below post (reposted for the #IMLD campaign) on supporting minority languages at home.


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.

#IMLD – Being an OPOL family – guarantee of success?

I am reposting series of blog posts on different methods of raising bilingual children when you are not within a bilingual community of practice. In this first post, I tackle the issue of why the OPOL method does not always “work” to produce fluent bilinguals.

Over the last decade or so, the OPOL method of raising bilingual children has gotten a lot of positive press. It sounds pretty simple – One parent, one language. So I speak French to my kids and my husband speaks English to them, and they will grow up bilingual. Sounds easy, yes? But the reality, as with anything to do with families or children, is not as simple or clear cut.
Just employing the OPOL method can produce bilingual children, but over my years of working with bilingual families, I have seen that it doesn’t guarantee success. Here are what I find to be the most common complications or limitations of OPOL:

1) Lack of minority language development.
Realistically, if a couple in the Netherlands, for example, have one English-speaking and one Dutch-speaking parent, their children are going to grow up hearing *far* more Dutch than English. By the time the kids are in school (or earlier if they are in child care in Dutch) they will be spending the majority of their time in Dutch, even more so if the English speaking parent works full time. Realistically then, one parent speaking English with the kids for an hour or so every day is possibly not going to be enough to produce “bilingual” children.
What can you do? In this situation, the family needs to find more time for English, whether that means English-speaking child care, or both parents using English at home, some or all of the time.

2) The slide towards the majority language….
In many bilingual families, the minority language speaking partner also speaks the majority language. This happens a lot in the English-speaking world (or other immigrant paradigms) where, for example, a Spanish/English speaking American marries an English-speaking American. Often, the Spanish-speaking parent sets out with the bet of intentions, determined to pass on Spanish to the children. But then they use a lot of English too, to be inclusive with friends and family, and to talk to child minders/teachers… and the kids very quickly pick up on the fact that Spanish is not *necessary* to communicate with that parent, or with anyone. They can use English all the time, and be just fine. So the children start speaking to the parent in English, and while the parent makes a valiant effort to keep speaking Spanish, eventually the use of Spanish dwindles… and the children are not bilingual at all, or anymore.
What can you do? From the beginning, if you are the minority speaking parent, know that your job will not be easy, and you will have to work at it. I meet parents all the time who tell me that they thought raising bilingual children with OPOL would be easy. It’s not, for many of us. If you are serious about passing your language on to your children, set your goals (what kind of language do I want them to have, what do I want them to be able to do?) and then make a plan. Activate all the resources in your network or find a new network that provides you, and your children with the language input and support they need to achieve bilingualism.

3) Lack of cohesion and consistency
Sometimes a parent who speaks both languages (and possibly other languages) in an OPOL family can have problems choosing what language to speak. So, they use a little of this, and a little of that. A lot of the OPOL literature stresses consistency, and I believe it to be true that consistency is desirable, primarily in the early years when the language system is being formed. Also, the early years are the time that the parents have the most influence over their children, so if you are passing on a minority language, it’s important to use these years to transmit as much language you can – there will be lots of time for #1 and 2 above to happen… but if you did a great job of building a language foundation before your kids start to only use the majority language, they have a better chance of coming back to the language later. Does it really mess kids up if a parent uses two languages, intermixed? I don’t think we really know the answer to this yet, as there are too many variations in family language use. But I do think that it’s best to be consistent, as much as possible, in the early years, if only to make your children’s task easier. Once the children are older, and have well-developed language systems, you can be more fluid in your language use. I use English, French and Dutch with my kids all in the same day, and sometimes even in the same conversation, and it’s a way of developing their linguistic abilities, and using translanguaging to deepen knowledge.
What can you do? This comes down to what motivates each parent, personally. You can do some reading on how to best use OPOL, or just make a resolution to only use “your” language with your children. It’s helpful for both parents to be on the same page about this, and to see the benefits of consistent language input for young children.

International Mother Language Day 2015 – #IMLD campaign

Join us in celebrating all our languages with a month of events/posts/ promotions leading up to “International Mother Language Day” on February 21, 2015 (Fathers, your language is included too!). Onraisingbilingualchildren will have special posts on February 12 and 19 on supporting Mother Tongue at home and at school.

Please share links using the #IMLD tag!


International Mother Language Day 2015 – #IMLD campaign.

Teaching ELLs: Arkansas Educator Shares His Approach to Language Instruction – Learning the Language – Education Week

Love, love, love this short article. It warms the cockles of my heart to hear about schools and districts where people are making strides in respecting and supporting the language journey of bilinguals.

I especially love this bit:

A school where every teacher is trained in ESL techniques, in a district where everyone from the custodians to the superintendent respects the family, nation, and culture that each child comes from.

This is the basis of our “Whole-school approach” to language support – all staff are trained ELL staff, and everyone understands the basic tenets of successful school-based bilingualism and inclusive education.

Great job Justin Minkel and Springdale Arkansas!

Teaching ELLs: Arkansas Educator Shares His Approach to Language Instruction – Learning the Language – Education Week.

The Languages you Speak to Your Bilingual Child | Psychology Today

This is a great article that explains, from the research, why no one method is a guarantee of bilingual success. When I do parent seminars we talk about this a lot. Being an OPOL family doesn’t automatically mean your kids will be bilingual. Having a minority language at home does not automatically mean your kids will be bilingual. Outside of true bilingual communities, successful child bilingualism happens when you pay attention to ensuring adequate quantity and quality of input, and provide meaningful opportunities for language use.
It won’t happen by itself – you need a plan!

A question of primary importance concerns the type and amount of language input the child will receive, mainly from his/her parents but also from other sources.

The Languages you Speak to Your Bilingual Child | Psychology Today.