Plant a Seed and Hope it Grows: The Best Way to Help Your Child Become Bilingual

This month we published Household Perspectives on Minority Language Maintenance and Loss by Isabel Velázquez. In this post the author talks about her research on bilingual household dynamics in Latino families. 

¿Qué no haría uno por sus hijos? – What wouldn’t you do for your kids? This rhetorical question often comes up in conversations with Latino families in the community in which I live and conduct research. Regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, the narrative of parental self-sacrifice runs deep. In conversations with my university colleagues and other middle-class professionals, it often takes on the shiny packaging of meritocracy. In the kitchens and living rooms of the first-generation working-class families that have afforded me the privilege of learning about their experience, it comes with stories of geographical, social, and economic dislocation. Many of their themes are shared with those of other immigrant and refugee households in our city.

Separate one’s family, leave one’s country, learn a new language, start again, risk life and limb, work three jobs, brave the Nebraska cold at 5:00 am, deform the tendons in one’s right hand from the repetitive motion of cutting meat in an industrial line, make ends meet, make do, find a way. I want them to have an education. I want them to have more opportunities. I want them to get ahead in life.

Because I’m interested in how a minority language is lost or maintained in communities with low ethnolinguistic vitality for that language, most of the conversations I have with other Latino parents eventually arrive at the topic of intergenerational transmission of Spanish. Over the course of the past decade, I’ve yet to find a Latino mother or father who does not hold positive attitudes about their children’s development of bilingual skills.

And yet, in this, like in many other communities, positive attitudes toward Spanish are necessary, but insufficient to guarantee children’s development of their family language. Neither are parents’ level of education or economic standing.

In professional presentations and informal interactions, I am often approached by parents interested in finding the best resource to help their children become bilingual. A CD? An app? A book? A television series? A video game? As it happens, the best device to transmit language is an adult in possession of that ever-scarce commodity: attention. Attachment, nurturing, belonging, such are the fundamental ingredients of intergenerational transmission.

In my ideal world, every newborn would come with a four-word instruction: Forgive yourself; try again. Like all other dimensions of raising a healthy human, transmission of a family language happens at the messy junctions of everyday parenting.

Despite different circumstances and life experiences, analysis of bilingual household dynamics has allowed us to learn that families that are able to transmit Spanish to their children share three features: Quality and amount of exposure to the family language, opportunities for use, and relevance – the management, planning, and evaluation of the first two, it must be said, overwhelmingly falling on the mother.

No gardener plants once and expects results. Relevance of the family language for our children will only bloom years later, once they’ve formed their own networks away from the household. As parents, we plant, we weed, we water, and wait. We do not know if the seed of linguistic transmission will bear fruit. Do we ever?

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Bilingual Childcare by Victoria Benz.

Bilingual Community Education and Multilingualism

This week we publish Bilingual Community Education and Multilingualism edited by Ofelia García, Zeena Zakharia and Bahar Otcu which offers new understandings about heritage language education in the multilingual city of New York. Here Ofelia García tells us about about the importance of community education projects. 

Multilingualism today is often framed through a lens of super-diversity. This is so especially in urban contexts, where many have documented the frequent and intense interaction of different ethnolinguistic groups. But little has been said about bilingualism as seen through the lens of the ethnolinguistic communities themselves.

This book takes up the lens of ethnolinguistic communities as they proudly educate their own children in their ways of speaking and being. These bilingual community education programs are unlike bilingual programs in US public schools, where speakers of languages other than English are often minoritized. In these programs, the children’s linguistic and cultural diversity are their most valuable assets. But these bilingual community education programs are also different from how others have characterized “heritage language” programs. In these bilingual community education programs diasporic ethnolinguistic communities ensure that their children use their ways of speaking and being within a US global context. Thus, their interest is not in their heritage, as the language and the culture was performed in the past, in another space, but as a dynamic bilingualism and biculturalism that is performed by American children.

Adopting the lens of the bilingual communities themselves means that it is not super-diversity that drives these efforts. Instead, language practices are locally-produced by the communities themselves, although shaped by the plural interactions that are redefining bilingual language practices.  The bilingual communities and the educators involved in these efforts do not support super-diversity. They see their languaging and identifying through a narrow lens, although they adjust that lens to converge with the language and cultural practices in the United States. Their translanguaging practices encompass both the bilingual discourse used in these educational spaces, as well as the pedagogies that are often observed. Rather than becoming obsfuscated by super-diversity, their translanguaging becomes sharper, more intense, as they redefine their languaging and subjectivities as that of bilingual Americans. It is this type of bilingual community education program, and not just celebrating super-diversity, that will ensure that bilingual communities are respected as assets, and that bilingual children will be valued for their bilingualism.

Online Study of Bilingualism

Multilingual Matters author Dr. Sue Dicker, professor of English at Hostos Community College, City University of New York, is the author of Languages in America: A Pluralist View. A well-respected book, Languages in America is a commonly-used textbook in many college education courses.

Sue Dicker

Dr. Dicker is presently engaged in an online study of bilingualism in New York City. Her goal is to record the experiences of bilingual English-Spanish and English-Chinese speakers using their native or heritage languages in the public sphere. In addition to being comfortably bilingual in English-Spanish or English-Chinese, subjects must be at least nineteen years old and live in New York City. The survey consists of short-answer questions that take roughly ten minutes to answer and open-ended questions that participants may answer in as much detail as they wish or not at all.

If you are eligible for the survey please click here to participate in the study. Please feel free to forward the link to others who might find it interesting.

If you would like further information on this study, Dr. Dicker may be reached at sdicker@hostos.cuny.edu.