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4 Reasons you should NOT drop your Home (Minority) Language
Annabelle Humanes

Annabelle Humanes

Contributing Writer at theParentVoice, Magazine
Annabelle Humanes is a linguist, former researcher in bilingual language acquisition, writer, language teacher and mother of two multilingual children.
She wants to live in a world where diversity is celebrated and valued, where parents of multilingual families are never asked to stop speaking their home language(s) and, more importantly, where books come bundled with chocolate.

As a linguist, she worked in academia for a decade teaching and carrying out research in language acquisition in young children. Multilingualism is her passion and her own family lives with four languages (and cultures) on a daily basis.

When she is not traveling or eating her way around the world with her little European citizens, she is blogging at www.thepiripirilexicon.com about being the mother of two cross-cultural children.
Annabelle Humanes

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It is early evening. My phone rings. A good friend calls for a chat. She has just come back from her pediatrician’s office after a routine visit. He advised her to use a little more English in their daily life at home. She kindly nodded while he was talking, unsure what to say. She feels guilty. She is confused. She needs encouragement.

Her family speaks exclusively Spanish at home because this is the language they feel more comfortable with. When they decided to speak Spanish to their son (now 18 months old), she read up a little online about how it was great for children. That was all what was needed. It all came naturally when he was born. She never really looked back.

Today, her son says only a handful of words and attends daycare where English is spoken. She feels as though her son should have picked up some English by now. And so does her pediatrician.

Many parents raising bilingual children find themselves in this situation. Well-meaning teachers, carers and doctors often feel as though dropping the home or minority language will help a child acquire the majority language quicker and more easily.

This could not be further from the truth.

As a former researcher in bilingual acquisition and mother of two multilingual children, in my opinion, it is only very rarely appropriate to advise a family to drop a language. Here is why.

It is only very rarely appropriate to advise a family to drop a language. Click To Tweet

Bilingualism is not the cause of the issue

Bilingualism is (almost) never the source for a language, cognitive or developmental delay.

You can rest assured that there has been, to date, no evidence that bilingualism causes any delay. The vast majority of children can become bilingual. Even autistic children (or children with developmental impairments) can become bilingual. It does not make their symptoms worse (and this is scientifically proven). Early studies that had shown delays were based on flawed methodologies or flawed interpretations of results.

Bilingual children can be a little little slower in learning a language but fall within standard monolingual norms. Click To Tweet

Yes, bilingual children can be a little little slower in learning a language. But they, generally, fall within standard monolingual norms. Some are fast, some are slow. It is not a race.



No evidence that dropping a language would work

Secondly, there is no evidence that parents dropping a language would help a child in learning the other one. Chances are it would not change anything. Annick de Houwer, a researcher, and author in a bilingual acquisition uses this analogy to explain the issue. Imagine your child is learning the guitar and the piano. They are good at playing the guitar but you would like them to do better with the piano. If you stop them from playing the guitar will it improve their piano skills? The answer is, absolutely not. To improve the piano playing skills, you will just need to provide more input, teaching, and practice.

Don’t underestimate the emotional bond with the language

You have bonded with your child in a specific language. Switching the language you speak to them might feel very odd. Many parents report struggling to switch or even feeling uncomfortable and detached because of it. How would you feel if your mother suddenly decided to speak another language to you? It would be a bit of a shock, to say the least. Would your relationship remain the same? If you are multilingual, I am sure you can understand the power of saying ‘I love you’ in one language over another.

A small child may even wonder why suddenly Mommy has decided to speak a different language. They may refuse the majority language because of it.

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Someone will regret it.

Further down the line, when your child becomes fluent in the majority language and all of the early childhood worries are long gone, you or your children may regret that decision to drop a language. Don’t focus on the next 18 months, look at the bigger picture, the life ahead of your child. Dropping a language, for many families, is not just about forgetting words. It is also about missing out on a relationship with (one side of) the family, a culture, etc.

Dropping a language, for many families, is also about missing out on a relationship with (one side of) the family, and/or a culture. Click To Tweet

So, here you are. You have been told to drop a language. What should you do?

 


Here is what I would and do recommend.

Consult a specialist

“It makes as much sense to ask your doctor for advice about bilingualism as it would to ask him about your car.”

Harding-Esch and Riley

If bilingualism has become a kind of scapegoat for a speech or behavioural issue, then it is time to look for other opinions on the matter.

Teachers, daycare providers and even paediatricians are, more often than not, mostly unaware of specialist research on the ins-and-outs of bilingualism. Always seek out help from someone who understands or who has experience in dealing with multilingual children. If bilingualism has become a kind of scapegoat for a speech or behavioural issue, then it is time to look for other opinions on the matter.

Reinforce your home language

If your child is struggling in one language, do not drop it. Go in the opposite direction. Reinforce it. Click To Tweet

If your child is struggling in one language, do not drop it. Go in the opposite direction. Reinforce it.   Focus on providing your child a really strong basis in your home/minority language. Seek out multilingual friends and experiences, read more books, talk more, find a You Tube channel in the target language they will like, find a babysitter who speaks the target language, call grandma and ask her to visit, talk some more,…

We have all been there. I could have bought myself a nice little beach house if I had a dollar for every time I have heard or read about this kind of advice. I, myself, have been told by well-meaning acquaintances that the four languages my children are learning might be too much for them. I have been told that, now that we live abroad, we should maybe all speak the community language (to learn it altogether). Every time, I have felt like shouting. NO! Raising bilingual children is an amazing gift in diversity. Dropping a language is rarely the answer.

Raising bilingual children is an amazing gift in diversity. Click To Tweet

Be strong and confident. Only you know what is best for your own multilingual family.

To read more from Annabelle Humanes, follow her blog here.  



the author

Annabelle Humanes is a linguist, former researcher in bilingual language acquisition, writer, language teacher and mother of two multilingual children. She wants to live in a world where diversity is celebrated and valued, where parents of multilingual families are never asked to stop speaking their home language(s) and, more importantly, where books come bundled with chocolate. As a linguist, she worked in academia for a decade teaching and carrying out research in language acquisition in young children. Multilingualism is her passion and her own family lives with four languages (and cultures) on a daily basis. When she is not traveling or eating her way around the world with her little European citizens, she is blogging at www.thepiripirilexicon.com about being the mother of two cross-cultural children.

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1 Comment on "4 Reasons you should NOT drop your Home (Minority) Language"

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Christine Taylor
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I can’t agree with you more. While I haven’t been directly asked to drop English at home (we live in the Netherlands), at every level of care and education, the home language has been framed as a potential barrier to learning good Dutch. Luckily, I’m stubborn and lost a language myself as a child (two, technically), so persisted. It’s shocking and sad that the people who advise parents (both in schools and doctors offices) are so ill-informed about bilingualism. Recent research in the Netherlands showed that children who received the full permissible contact with a second language in school (it’s… Read more »
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