Saturday, October 13, 2012

Death of a culture - what will die with you? Bilingual children

I love you in multiple languages
I remember a discussion in my undergraduate sociology class that surrounded the theory that, "without language, we lose culture." What does this mean? As parents, I take it to mean that if we have the gift of a "native tongue" that we fail to pass on to our children, we are choosing to not pass on our culture.

In the past, those who came to the US were often forced to not teach their mother languages to their children - basically required to immerse their children into English with no chance of passing on "the home country" language. (Please note, the US does not have an official language). Also, we have small cultural sects or minorities in other countries who faced the same situation - they were forced to deny their heritage whether through social pressure or government control (such as the Maavaci of Russia). This process attempts to keep a more homogeneous culture and parents may see this as "better" because their children't won't be seen as outsiders, and not teach their language to their children by choice. It seems that instead of understanding no matter what we will have differences and seeing how being unique is a quality we should embrace, we are, instead, just keeping secret something that should be considered a gift.

Are we killing part of a culture when we don't pass on language? 

Now I am not saying you MUST teach your children another language or you are a bad parent if it doesn't work for you. I'm also not saying that if you know another language, especially if you are a native speaker, that you have to teach your child that language. There are not absolutes in parenting! But, not passing on a language not only affects the ability to converse in a language, but being fluent in multiple languages allows you to actually THINK differently. "All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express." (Baroditsky, L, 2010).

Cuneiform script, first written language
To speak like a native, first we have to learn a language from a native speaker. Second, it seems to be important to learn language two (L2 in linguistics) by around ages 5-6 and actually the "recognition" of these accents starts to decrease by age one! Yes, infants can tell the difference! So, speaking in another language to an infant MATTERS, not only because their brain development, but also so that, we, as caregivers get in the practice of speaking that language. This time appears to be that cusp point for our brains and tongues to match. I am on a reading list on linkedin for TESL teachers and accent coaches. There is only so much someone can attempt to help "fix" later on - our tongues learn to work a certain way, our brains know different context (we may not even KNOW to think of another way to say how the snow is drifting or the multiple ways to say the color blue). For me, it is hard for me to speak things in so many languages because I can't roll my "r" - it just wasn't something I heard or had to do or was taught early on - my brain just doesn't know how to tell my tongue to do that!

So, if you have that second language in your family, don't feel like you can't bring it in because you weren't doing say "one speaker, one language" idea from birth (which isn't the only way to do it anyway). It is never "too late" though there are cusps when learning happens easiest both on our brains and willingness. You CAN pass on a language, especially if you're talking a younger child. Now since language and culture are so intertwined, knowing another language fluently can affect a child's sense of "who" they are - make learning another language, especially if it is one in your family's heritage POSITIVE.

When we choose to not teach our children a language we have to recognize that part of how we think also is not passed on. So, if we learn a language later in life, we will try to implement rules of logic, thought, and grammar into that 'new' language. Genc & Bada (2005) indicated that the theory of language and culture is so intertwined because, "we perceive the world in terms of categories and distinctions found in our  native language and... what is found in  one language may not be found in another language due to cultural differences." (Read the full article here).

Here's the thing, if we have the gift of another language, there shouldn't be a reason to keep it in our back pocket and not gift our children with that second language. If, at a later age, your child doesn't want to keep it up, they can choose to do so! A child adopted internationally and not given the opportunity to keep their language up, for example, mostly ends up going through the process of language attrition. If you teach your child another language and later chooses to abandon the language, and that's okay with the parents, that is fine! But, I have yet to meet an adult whose mother or father spoke a different language and said "wow, I wish they never taught me [insert language here]." Instead I know plenty of people who say, "I wish my dad/mom had taught me their language."

I guess an extension to this question would be - what do we fail to learn in language when we learn from say a book or a non-native speaker? If we try to "go back" and learn a language, lost from previous generations, we may be able to reconnect, but only within the context we have of our teachers.

Parents, if you have another language sitting in your back pocket, feel free to pass it on to your children. It really is a gift.


Brittney Minor said...

My whole family is currently learning French. Neither my husband nor myself naturally speak a second language so we thought we needed to learn something together!

Rachel R. said...

Requiring people to teach their children English when they come to this country (which I *totally* agree with) is not at all the same thing as requiring them to *not* teach their native language (which I utterly *dis*agree with). I wish I knew the languages my g-grandparents spoke.

My hubby is a fluent Spanish-speaker (by learning, not natively; he majored in Spanish), and I tried to get him to raise our kids bilingual, 'cause it's SO much easier to learn a language young. But he felt too weird speaking to them in a language I don't speak - like he was going behind my back or something. ('Though I daresay it would have helped me learn, too!)

Something you can do, though, even if you don't speak another language yourself, is to expose your children to the language young. It helps keep those neural pathways open, to hear the sounds of the language.