Nearly one in three U.S. children live in a household where a language other than English is spoken, but are the same number of children fluent in their home language? Actually, many parents struggle to maintain the home language for a variety of reasons: when spoken to in the home language, children respond in English; some teachers encourage English only at home (the perception that another language confuses children is false); parents, their children and many societal groups view home languages as inferior to English. These examples of parent struggles with home language maintenance resonate with immigrant families across the U.S.
Subtractive & Additive Bilingualism
Despite the fact that many first generation immigrant parents in the U.S. speak their native languages at home, they are noticing that their children are losing fluency and interest in their home language. The 2002 National Survey of Latinos, in which 3,000 Latino adults living in the United States participated, found the following: Almost three fourths (72%) of first generation Latinos speak Spanish as their primary language, but only one in four (24%) are bilingual, and 4% speak primarily English. “In contrast, second generation Latinos are mostly divided between those who are English dominant (46%) and those who are bilingual (47%). Third generation or higher Hispanics are largely English dominant (78%)” (p. 16). In Latino families, second and third generation children are statistically more likely to become English dominant by adulthood, rather than bilingual dual language learners.
After years of teaching young children in the San Francisco Bay Area, several of whom were living in households where Spanish was spoken, I started to notice the broad range of Spanish speaking skills among them. Having researched the problem of subtractive bilingualism in graduate school, I was less surprised to see the erosion of Spanish than I was to see the maintenance of Spanish in some households. Specifically, I wondered how or why parents perceived home language maintenance as advantageous. From a Latino parent’s perspective, what were the perceived benefits of maintaining the home language?
I set out to explore this question in my doctoral dissertation during the 2011-2012 school year. There are many proven benefits – cognitive, socio-emotional, developmental, cultural, and professional – of raising dual language learners. I, however, was particularly curious about Latino parent perceptions of home language maintenance and its benefits. Most importantly, language maintenance is more likely in an additive bilingual environment where the home language is celebrated and honored. While the following advantages are perhaps somewhat predictable and unsurprising, these tend to be the driving forces for home language maintenance amongst parents.
Speaking from the Heart
Adults and children alike express themselves much more naturally and organically in their native languages. In our study, parents spoke critically to their children about the benefits of building stronger relationships with family members vis a vis communicating in Spanish. It’s never too early to start having these conversations with preschoolers and early elementary aged children, explaining how meanings can get lost in translation when a feeling or sentiment is expressed in a second language. Children are very capable of code switching and understanding context!
A Better Future
Bilingual parents want the same advantages they’ve experienced (or strive to experience) in the workplace for their children. Being valued for their ability to communicate with more people, both locally and internationally, is important to bilingual parents who utilize their language skills in their careers and often in their local communities. Parents can have regular conversations about the value of bilingualism with their children, especially in an increasingly global workplace. Children are always motivated by real world connections!
Bridge Between Culture and Language
When parents express pride in their native languages, children often come to see their bilingualism as not only an asset, but a privilege. Their home language is not always appreciated or even acknowledged in other settings, such as school or extra-curricular activities. Children can become more authentically connected to their family and native cultures and traditions when speaking to and engaging with monolingual relatives who have less exposure to English and/or U.S. culture. Visits to the home country are much more meaningful for children who speak the language, and the native culture is more easily accessible. Language maintenance takes time, effort, and resolve, but the rewards can be life changing.
Emily Enstice is a former teacher at Willow Creek Academy, a K-8 charter school in Sausalito, California. She received her doctorate in International and Multicultural Education from the University of San Francisco.
“together” by Spirit-Fire via Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/8dLJyi