Heritage or the community language?

As a migrant and a parent of a child who is bilingual from birth, I know how vulnerable topic the language of children of migrant parents is. Oh, I am all too aware that what I have to say will raise a few eyebrows. Or, even more than a few. After all, for years educationalists have been recommending to families like mine, where both mum and dad speak the minority language, to communicate with their children only in their mother tongue and leave introducing the community language to the community. This strategy is called the Minority Language at Home (ML@H) and is widely used among migrants of the same nationality. And now I am coming to say that it’s wrong.

The times are changing and I believe we also need to change. Things that have been “just fine” in the past not always pass the test in the modern days. We are constantly adapting and improving the way we live, build houses, and embrace technology. At the same time, with a language development, it seems that we are stuck in the past, for years using the same solutions. Scientists are doing new research studies, carrying out new experiments, and receiving even more precise results. We know more about how our brains function and what the psychological results of our actions are. The global sociopolitical situation is changing drastically, people all over the world are on the move, hundreds of millions of people live outside their country of origin. Yet, migrant families where both parents speak the minority language still hear the same recommendation that the best option for their children in regards to their language development is to wait until the community teaches them the majority language when they enter the educational system. Until then, they are monolingual and can communicate only in their parents’ mother tongue, having limited skills in the community language. This is what the Minority Language at Home is about.

It’s not that everybody thinks it’s the best option. It happens more often that one would think to hear people claiming that in order to integrate with the community children of migrant parents should concentrate on learning the language of the country they live in and drop their heritage language (“Why do you want to teach him Russian/Cantonese/etc.? He lives here, so he won’t need it anyway”).

The reasons to think that way are numerous. Some people feel ashamed of their country of origin and try to assimilate with the other country, no matter what. Don’t shoot the messenger, I cannot understand it, either. Others, quite many of them actually, are simply ignorant and don’t understand or appreciate the value of being enriched by the ability to speak more languages. Not to mention being able to maintain the family links, own culture, heritage, traditional values, and own identity. Or, the educational advantages of being bilingual and biliterate. Or, having more opportunities to get a better job and get a competitive salary in the future.

Looking from another perspective and following the advice of language specialists, most teachers will insist, however, that the best method to develop language skills in children of migrant parents is the Minority Language at Home. A number of parents use it consciously and abide rigorously for the sake of reinforcing the minority language (“I never ever speak to my child in the community language, no matter where we are and who we talk to”) because they believe that their mother tongue needs to be reinforced before the child starts school so that he or she don’t drop this language. Even more parents use this method as the most natural way to communicate with their child (“This is the language I feel most comfortable to speak and the easiest way to express myself”). Many don’t believe that their language skills are good enough to introduce their second language to their child while others decide to listen to all kinds of specialists who tell them not to communicate with their daughter or son in the majority language because they cannot speak it well enough. The latter is from my personal experience, by the way.

When my son was born six years ago I had to make a decision what to do with his language development. Both his dad and I are Polish, and we live in the United Kingdom, so I knew that the old school specialists would suggest the ML@H as the best way to raise our child. The principles of this method are easy to follow. Parents can communicate with the child in their minority language while he or she acquires the community language from friends, strangers in a shop, a playground etc. The biggest flaw of this approach is, however, that in order to fully develop their language skills the child needs to be exposed to a language for a certain amount of time. Scientists still discuss how much time is “enough” but they tend to agree that the level of exposure can start as low as 30% or even 20% to allow to become a speaker who can not only understand but also comprehend what he hears or reads.

This is where my problem lay all those years ago. If we estimate the average, this 30% seems quite a lot in a busy parent’s day. 30% makes three hours out of a 10-hour day. Three hours of interacting with other people: playing, listening, chatting. Furthermore, next to the amount of time spent on immersion in the majority language, one needs to consider the quality of this time. The more interaction, the better the child’s language skills become, so this 30% wouldn’t be as much about me chatting with my English friends or walking around a shop but rather about my child being actively engaged in the conversations.

If you cannot manage it, most probably your child will finally start catching up with his monolingual peers when he begins school at the age of five or at three, if you send him to preschool. As a result of the Minority Language at Home he will acquire the majority language as “additional”, which means that at the start of school his mother tongue will be the language he speaks and comprehends the best. When a language is introduced around this age, it takes about five up to seven years more to equate the first and second language at a cognitive level. The child can start to communicate relatively fast, within the first months but it will take him as much as more than twice the length of his life to master the more abstract academic language.

As parents, we didn’t want this for our son. “Second” or “additional” language was the word that bothered us the most. We wanted our boy to feel native in his country of birth right from the start of his life. We wanted him to feel safe, confident, understanding, and identifying with the community he lived in. We also wanted him to start school at his actual intellectual level, which wouldn’t be influenced by his insufficient language skills in English.

I’ve heard of too many myths related to the second language acquisition (I’ll tell you about them soon) and I’ve read too many research studies to be aware of what I didn’t want my child to experience. At the same time, I could not imagine that my son wouldn’t be able to speak my native language and wouldn’t freely communicate in this language with me or our monolingual families back in Poland. My English is “just fine” but after all those years of learning I am still finding words I won’t understand and I couldn’t imagine this being an barrier in a communication between me and my child. My heritage is an important part of my identity because it made me who I am and from the start it’s felt of great significance that my little son knows “the real me”.

This is why, when asked whether I would prefer to concentrate on introducing to my son the community language or I’d rather speak to him in my native language, my answer is: why not do both? Why not find a way where a child could learn his parents’ native tongue and at the same time acquire the majority language at a level that would allow him to communicate and comprehend just like any other monolingual kid from the community where he lives? I didn’t get an answer to my question when I called the local council before my son was born. Actually, I was advised not to worry and wait until he starts school and “then he will learn English”. I was left then with no other option than to make up my mind and develop my own method (based on scientific studies, though). And you know, what happened? It worked! Children are amazing if we let them show what they can do.

Featured in THE HUFFINGTON POST

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