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…”

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

International Mother Language Day: Putting your money where your mouth is!

Mother tongue promotion in the school helps develop not only the mother tongue but also children’s abilities in the majority school language. (Cummins, J. 2001)

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This year I am celebrating International Mother Language Day at home, speaking many languages with my own children – mother, father and other. Last year, for IMLD 2015, I had the honour of participating in the the festivities at the German European School of Singapore. As the theme of IMLD this year is “Quality Education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes” I thought it would be appropriate to write this post about my visit to GESS last year. GESS is a school of two halves, with a classic German school on one side, and an IB international school on the other. I spent five days at GESS EuroSec last year, doing training with the staff and parents, and sharing in their celebrations of IMLD.

GESS celebrates it as “International Languages Day”, which recognises the fact that children have many important languages in their lives, from their mothers, fathers, school, friends etc. The school celebrates this day with a fair of language tables (Dutch table pictured above, Turkish table below) where children can use their own languages and try new languages, games and food. They also have mother tongue story-telling, with parents coming in to share stories in a wide variety of languages. All of this is a great way to show children that their languages are valued at GESS. However, the school also is putting in place programs that go much farther to support language diversity – past what Sarah Thomas, Head of EuroSec Primary calls “foods, flags and festivals”. The secondary school has a robust integrated program for Dutch and Danish mother tongue, based on a long-term partnership with LanguageOne. The primary school has launched a new “Language Enrichment Program“(LEP) this year, designed to support the home languages of as many of its students as possible. At the launch, they had over 400 pupils in 29 groups, across 13 languages involved in the new Wednesday afternoon enrichment program.

We don’t want to communicate to our children that they need to check their diverse identities and languages at the classroom door, because intended or not, the message is that classrooms are English-only environments. We want our students to bring their whole selves to class, where all their cultural and linguistic knowledge will be valued, so that they, in turn, can value their own emerging, complex identities. This makes for well-adjusted children, and as research tells us, it pays a dividend in academic success too.  

                                                                                       Sarah Thomas, Head of EuroSec Primary, GESS

 This new program is intended to support the students’ home language skills, and also to support the status of their home languages, as languages worth knowing, using, growing. Alongside the LEP, there is also a concerted effort underway to integrate linguistic diversity into the classroom, through the use of differentiated pedagogies such as translanguaging. Although the school has many challenges facing it in implementing and maintaining new approaches to diversity in international schools it is well on its way to being a flagship of best practice for international schools.

UNESCO has made it a priority to promote children’s rights to education in a language that they speak, in order to maximise educational opportunities for all children. In the world of international education we often focus on what children gain from the opportunity to go to school in another language (usually English). It’s important that we also stop and consider what they may be forfeiting if international schools don’t also make an effort to support the continued growth of their home languages.  

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Supporting multilingualism in schools: Spotlight on best practice

I’ve been very absent from my blog for the last year, and have been thinking about a good post to start the new year. I have a back-log of ideas in my brain and none was “the one”. Then I saw this video on FB (thanks to Ellen-Rose Kambel from the Rutu Foundation) and found “the one”.

One of the reasons my posting lagged last year was that I have been working more with schools, and less with families. When I started this blog I intended it to be for families raising bilingual/multilingual children. But as I spend more time doing research/training with schools, my focus has changed. So this year, my blog will often feature information for teachers and schools. I am planning to do a “throwback Thursday” series to bring back some of most popular/useful blog posts for parents as well – I know it can be hard to troll the archives to see if there is anything pertinent to your situation, so hopefully this will help.

In the meantime, I’d like to share this video, from a source called “Teacher Pages” (links below). The clip is filmed in a classroom in India, and shows so many great teaching moments that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start with language. One of the issues I have been focusing on in the last 2 years is the very important issue of languages in the classroom. In many, many schools there are still restrictive regulations about language use, which disallow children from using their mother tongue/first language/home language at school. Sometimes the restrictions are only in the classroom, sometimes they apply to the whole school area. In either case, the schools are doing children a disservice, personally and academically, through these regulations. I’ve written about this before, so I’m going to avoid the temptation to go on a diatribe about all the reasons that these regulations are wrong. I will say that in my experience, these regulations are based on these misconceptions:

  1. If children speak their “other” language at school they won’t learn the school language as quickly.
  2. That the school needs all the children to use only one language or there will be cliques and divisions among the children
  3. That teachers need to understand everything said or written in the classroom in order to be “in control” of the environment and the learning.

I will write a post on each of these misconceptions in the future, but in short, we know from research that none of the above are true. When I do training on this topic, one of the most common worries is how to manage different languages in the classroom. I think the teacher in the clip below illustrates beautifully how multilingual learning enhances a classroom, and also how well children work together within and across their languages. In addition, her understanding of how children learn a new language and how to create an  inclusive classroom environment are fantastic. Congratulations to Ms. Sujata Patil (Principal) and Ms. Nikita Patil on this wonderful best practice video.

Aside from language, I absolutely love the “running board” in the classroom. No technology, brilliant multilingual, interactive teaching. This is a school we can all learn something from, no matter what our school environment is like. (I know that this shows a classroom in which the teacher speaks, apparently, all the languages. I will write on the same topic for teachers in super-diverse schools as well).

Speaking, Reading and Writing in a Multilingual Classroom

TEACHER PAGES

Forum: Why educating English language learners means success for everyone

This welcome attention to English learners, however, will become hollow rhetoric if the federal government does not fund significant professional development for teachers. A majority of teachers today report that they do not feel prepared to work with English learners, and most teachers in fact have limited or no training regarding the unique challenges and opportunities that accompany teaching English learners.

This is an issue that has been a major part of my work for the last years – teachers who have language learners in their classrooms need appropriate and comprehensive training. And these days, that means most teacher need training. While this article focuses on the US, the situation is no different in most parts of the world. In Europe, economic migration is pouring children into local schools that need to learn the language *and* keep their own language to succeed at school. In the UK 1 in 6 primary school children do not speak English at home (check NALDIC for good statistics) and other countries are close behind. Pre-service teacher training programs need to address this as a part of initial teacher training, and schools need to address this by providing substantial training to all in-service teachers and support staff. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity!

via Forum: Why educating English language learners means success for everyone.