Our guest blogger this week, Eowyn Crisfield, lives in The Hague, in the Netherlands, but is originally from northern Alberta. She found her passion for Applied Linguistics at Concordia (BA TESL 1997, MA APLI 2005). She is now an educational consultant, working specifically in the area of languages in education. Her focus is to provide a bridge between research on language acquisition and teaching and practical applications in schools, communities, and families. Her work with schools is linked to developing curricula and pedagogy that responds better to the needs of language learners in schools. She also works with families on family language planning. Eowyn is co-author of the recent book Cultural and Linguistic Innovation in Schools: The Languages Challenge (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) and can be found fighting the good fight for linguistic equality on Twitter at @4bilingualism.
In almost 15 years of working with bilingual/multilingual families, I have had the honour of hearing the stories of hundreds of families and their attempts to figure out the right path to bi/multilingualism for their children. While it is always rewarding being able to help families with their family language plan, it is also often a very emotional subject. Parents want to make the best choices for their children, but are influenced by their own experiences as language learners and language users. This can lead parents to prioritise languages that they think are more useful than their own, or to making value judgments about languages based on who they want their children to be. One of the hardest things to deal with is parents who want to actively choose to not pass their own language on to their children. In my experience, this is usually related to one of the following reasons:
Parents’ feelings of insecurity as language users Most of the parents I work with are living and working in a language other than their first language(s). Some are living temporarily abroad and others have immigrated permanently, but on the whole, their own language has limited usefulness for work and daily life. Many of these parents feel some insecurity about their language abilities, and feel somewhat hampered by their “non-native” capacity in their working language (usually, but not always, English). In an effort to have their children not live this experience, they decide that they should ensure that their child is a “native-speaker” of English. The means to this is usually choosing to either use English themselves with their children, or by choosing English-language childcare/schooling. Either way, they choose to prioritise English over their own language(s).
Refuting an emotionally charged language Living in The Hague, I’ve met and worked with many families from the former Yugoslavia. These parents count one or more varieties of BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) as their first language, but sometime choose to not use it with their children. For those who experienced their languages as conflict languages, it can seem to be too difficult to return to using those languages or to use them with their children. This is the case for other languages that have represented conflict in other parts of the world as well; parents want to leave behind those memories and not risk involving their children in historical and current conflicts.
Cutting ties to homeland In my work with parents in expat contexts, I’ve met many families who have decided that they do not want to return to their home countries. Whether it be for cultural or economic reasons, they have committed to a global identity rather than staying rooted in their passport country. These families often slide away from using their language with their children, rather than making an overt decision not to use it. Living abroad, with children schooled (mainly) in English and being integrated into an expat community means that English becomes their working language, and slowly takes over in the home too. Before they know it, their children are no longer willing or able to speak the family language anymore. This situation can also apply to immigrants, who feel that their future is in their new homeland, and that their language will no longer serve them any use. Sometimes there is external pressure to not continue to use their own language, but sometimes the pressure is internal, in that they think that giving their children the best start in their new home is through only using the majority language.
In all of these cases, the parents are making what seems to be a reasonable decision based on their life experiences and expectations. What may not be taken into account in these decisions is how the child may eventually feel about not having access to a language that is a part of their heritage. I get many emails from my blog from adults who had the possibility to be raised bi/multilingual but for one reason or another their parents chose not to pass that language on. Every one of these adults feels immense regret for the parts of themselves that they cannot explore and understand. Many have made multiple attempts to learn their heritage language, but have been discouraged by their position as “other” or “foreign” in a place that they feel should be a part of them. Some have gone so far as to pick up and move in order to be immersed in the language they want to be able to speak. What is common to all these stories is a sense of loss: of identity, of self, of possibility. Each person who has spoken to me of their desire to speak their heritage language has expressed it differently, but for all of them, there is regret at what might have been, at who they could have been, and what they could have done, if only.
So when I work with families who are grappling with big decisions about what languages to prioritise, I always ask them to think about keeping the door open on heritage languages for their children. The window in which our children are captivated by us and by our language is short, and if we don’t take that opportunity to embed some sense of our languages it may well never happen. A decision not to use a minority/heritage language with your children when they are young may well be making a permanent decision to close the door to them on a part of who they are and where they come from. The languages that surround our children, community and school languages, are robustly represented in their lives and will be acquired (especially if one of the languages is English), but minority and heritage languages are fragile, and need to be nurtured in order to keep the doors open for our children to explore their own sense of self, which may not be who we thought they would become.