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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Multilingual Mania January 11, 2012 at 11:08 am

Great article! Thanks for dispelling the myths!!

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languagelizard February 3, 2012 at 3:53 am

Thank you for reading the post and leaving a comment! It is great to be connected to wonderful supporters of home languages like you are! Thank you for everything YOU do to support this!

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Nicole R. Zimmerman January 11, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Interesting and informative post, thanks. Good point that “dropping the home language in favor of English can end up having many negative consequences.” I appreciate how you address the emotional and historical/cultural benefits to maintaining the home language–in addition to academic ones that many research studies and posts, including ours, have addressed. At aha!Chinese (multimedia learning for kids learning Mandarin Chinese) we’d like to link to this for families who don’t want their children to lose their heritage language. Please let us know if you’d like to review Volume II of Let’s Go Guang!–hot off the press–in our series. Thanks!

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languagelizard February 3, 2012 at 3:55 am

Thank you for your comment, Nicole! Yes, the emotional and historical/cultural side of things is so very important – maybe even more important than the language itself when it comes to families! Thank you for linking to this post and we will pass on the information about the book you mention for consideration. Wonderful everything you are doing to support home languages!!

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Valerie Butron March 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for posting this informative piece. I am looking forward to sharing this and other resources with parents in my school district later this month. I will be presenting a workshop on Bilingual Families: Strategies to Develop Bilingualism at Home.

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Siobhan Todaro March 2, 2012 at 4:25 am

I absolutely agree with this. My husband is Italian and we live in Ireland, he only speaks Italian to the children and I speak English to them. To outsiders they always think that it must be confusing for the children to be switching between languages, but it comes absolutely natural to them and there is no confusion at all. As adults, we seem to think that by simplifying it for the kids that it will be better for them… but there is nothing in the world more important that having them know their heritage and embrasing it from day one. I’ve met countless people who have had to learn their heritage language as adults and that is so difficult for them.

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Cynthia Palacios March 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I agree; it’s so important to be bilingual these days. Our children grew up knowing 2 languages because they were around their grandparents often, but when we moved away from them, the kids began to forget Spanish. We realized something was missing when one boy began resisting learning Spanish, so we began taking them to a Spanish church. That weekly exposure insured they would be bilingual!

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Maryam F March 14, 2012 at 6:44 pm

I concur with the article, one hundred percent!
I am so fortunate to be able to stand my grounds, without succumbing to pressures from some people, who stubbornly think that I’m impeding the English Language skills of my four little kiddies, just because we speak our native language at home. My husband and I do not speak English at home. We made sure we exposed our kids to our native language, Yoruba, since birth. And we are not regretting it one bit.
Yes, the environment they were born into and grew up in, is English. Yet, for my kids to be able to communicate with one another and with their parents, in Yoruba and English, is simply priceless to me. I am a language lover, and I have decided not to limit their language potential. My kids love to read, and they have shown great interest in reading Arabic, French, and Spanish books for kids. They two older ones, ages 9 and 7, are enrolled in an online Arabic program for women and kids. I am in the women’s program and they are both classmates in the kids’ program. At the end of their Arabic class, I see excitement and self esteem shown on their innocent faces. They crave for more and they really want more. We also have French books at home (I took French classes for eleven straight years in Nigeria, elementary and high schools combined together) as well as Dora the Explorer’s Spanish book for kids. Je suis tres heureuse!!!
Our world of today has become mega-cities of thousands of different languages, if not more. Unfortunately, some languages have become extinct. An extinct language means a population in a certain culture has become extinct as well.
I remain a strong advocate for bilingualism and I look forward to passing on this great language legacy to my children’s children and their children as well, as long as I am alive.
Why? Because it is very important. Enough of language extinctions!
The next thing-to-do on my list right now is to hunt for American Sign Language classes. And I will be doing this with my kids, for sure.

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Paula Bendfeldt Diaz March 14, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Great post! We speak Spanish at home even though some professionals advised against it because my daughter has speech problems. She is 6 and completely bilingual and reading in Spanish and English. I grew up in Guatemala and had the incredible privilege to study in a full immersion English school and grew up bilingual. My daughters life is bilingual, Spanish is part of who she is, it lets her communicate with her grandparents and is part of her identity. She loves being bilingual and loves her heritage. It is so important for everyone to realize the importance not only of speaking heritage languages at home but also for teachers and other professionals like speech therapists and pediatricians to support this and encourage it!!

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Natalie Y. March 14, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Thanks so much for this great article! I will be sharing it with friends…

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Margo McKinney March 15, 2012 at 5:32 am

Very supportive article. I am always looking for resources for parents who are concerned about having more than one language in their home. As an ESL teacher I see this struggle and it should not be a struggle when actually being bilingual is an asset.

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Best Language Learning Software November 24, 2012 at 12:14 am

After I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment. There has to be an easy method you are able to remove me from that service? Thank you!

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Barbra March 7, 2013 at 5:57 am

I really like the contents of this article, especially the part about ‘Academics’. I am writing an essay about children’s and their families experiences with EAL in schools and I wondered whether you had the references you used to write this article because they would really help me. I am really interested in this area of study and would appreciate your help to find out more. Thank you.

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Howard Hirshfield April 26, 2014 at 2:07 am

Very inspiring article! There’s so much fun learning using a new language to go deeper into the world/country where they speak it.

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