Supporting Bilingualism: 4 Reasons Parents Should Speak Heritage Languages at Home

by languagelizard on January 11, 2012 · 16 comments

in At Home,community support,Families

Although the United States has been dubbed “the graveyard of languages” for its lack of heritage language support, today’s children’s futures need not be so bleak. Given the right encouragement, immigrant families can pass on the best of both worlds to their children: a home language in addition to the community language.

For many decades there has been a common misconception that immigrant families will help their children most by completely switching to English in the home. The belief is that the more a family uses English together, the stronger their English language skills will become.  While it is true that family members can help one another by practicing English together, English should not supplant the native language in the home. In fact, dropping the home language in favor of English can end up having many negative consequences.

Why would a family do this? A strong desire to prepare children for a competitive education system is one very common reason. Parents are unaware of the fact that they are actually hindering rather than helping their children by going this route. Other parents, desperate to prove that they are adapting to their new country, eagerly drop their native tongue in favor of an English-only approach. The desire to fit in can be overpowering.

While immigrant parents should certainly do everything they can to learn English, they should also be encouraged to continue speaking their native language at home with their children. Teachers and school administrators can play a key role in helping to make this happen by providing information, support and language resources. At the very least, parents can be reassured that their children will have a better chance at academic success when a home language is maintained.

Here are 4 key points that teachers and administrators can share with students’ parents:

  • Academics: When children discuss their class work and homework with their parents, it is important that these discussions take place in a language that feels comfortable and natural. To help children achieve academic success, parents must be able to discuss a variety of topics with increasing difficulty and complexity as academic levels increase. Regardless of language, being able to understand and work with ideas and concepts is what education and academic success is all about.  In fact, studies suggest that if children build a strong foundation in their home language, they will learn to speak, read and write English (or the community language) even better.
  • Emotions: Our native language resides deep within us. How often have we heard stories of a family member who spoke another language only in childhood yet reverted back to it in old age? Language is about more than just words. It is the repository of personal experience. To connect with our children fully, we need to be able to use words that have a depth of meaning for us. To sooth a skinned knee, to talk about new teenage love, or to share something personal about our own childhood, we need to use a language that taps into our own emotions.
  • Connections: By choosing to switch to the community language, we are sending a message to our children that our native language, culture, history and extended family are somehow inferior to the American culture, language and way of life. It is important to show our children that our heritage is important. We should do all we can to help our children stay connected to it. Our children may even travel to our native homeland when they are older to learn more about their roots.
  • Opportunities: While many American families are desperately trying to find ways to help their children learn additional languages, families who can pass on a language at home will be doing their children a disservice if they switch to English. Children may not appreciate it now, but down the road they will be thankful that their parents gave them the gift of a home language. Being bilingual is becoming more and more a door to a variety of business and cultural opportunities.

Parents want to do what is best for their families. When they switch to English at home, they do so from a misconception that it will benefit their family as a whole. They believe this will give their children a better chance at a successful future.

When people in positions of authority (teachers, administrators, doctors, etc.) let families know that speaking a home language provides the best academic and emotional support possible for their children, families will be motivated to pass on their language and heritage. At the very least, parents will be able to provide their children with the gift of bilingualism – a gift of which many in the United States are envious.

Photo credit: Stuart Richards

Do you have students in your class whose parents have chosen to switch to English at home? Have you spoken with the parents to find out why they made this choice? What have been their answers?

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