Building Bridges as We Go: Connecting Schools with Multilingual Families

This month we are publishing Connecting School and the Multilingual Home by Maria R. Coady. In this post the author explains how her own experiences provided the inspiration for the book.

I grew up navigating various ethnic and linguistic enclaves north of Boston, Massachusetts, where I was born. My grandparents’ families had emigrated from parts of Italy, and I fondly recall my great uncles and aunts speaking their local language and mixing English and Italian. I imagined what they thought while sitting under the cool shade of the apple trees while younger generations of American kids ran through the yard and played bocci. Family was central to our identity, and our identity was our culture, our history, and our language.

My sense of both family and language permeated every aspect of my own educational experience up through college: what I thought I could do, how I could do it, what I would study, and who I could become. One thing for sure was the message that I received from my family: being successful in school was paramount. I was the first generation to navigate access to college, so I learned the hard way (alone) to unravel the complexities surrounding educational programs, relationships, and even financial aid.

As my career matured from an early start in business into bilingual education, the same lens of access to education illuminated the barriers that other families—children, parents, and caregivers—faced. I could envision the bridges between the school and immigrant, multilingual families but remained dismayed by how infrequently I actually saw them built. What remained obvious to me was how many multilinguals have a similar experience—valuing education without having the knowledge of how to access it fully.

Rural multilingual family working in the horse farming industry, southeast United States

The inspiration for this book stems from my own experiences and 25 years of working with multilingual families in the northeast US, Colorado, and rural north central Florida. I have also had the experiences of working with international rural communities. I find that rural, multilingual families’ strengths go largely unnoticed, and are definitely not tapped into as a resource. Their many languages and literacy practices differ from those assumed by educators, leaving families positioned as disinterested in their child’s education.

The Gómez family is one telling example. A family of five children, I recall the second youngest daughter wanting to participate in a 4 day, overnight field trip to Washington, DC—a very long distance from Florida. This annual 5th grade trip, organized by the school, required students to have cameras (back then, disposable cameras), a suitcase, spending money, and good walking shoes. Although the parents understood the importance of the trip to their daughter, they did not understand the process of completing the extensive field trip paperwork, which was provided in only English, nor the details and items needed for the trip. The father and mother worked overtime and sold personal items in order to pay for some of the trip itself. My students and I fundraised to ensure that the daughter had the shoes, camera, and suitcase needed, and while advocating for one family at a time is important, we need the tools to make more systemic changes in schools on behalf of multilingual families.

Our job is to build relational trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002) with families, and as Michal Domínguez (2017) notes, hacer puentes al andar – building bridges as we go.  That is the spirit of this book, which is filled with concrete ways to support reflection, action, and to humanize our work as educators by connecting schools with multilingual families.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Narratives of Adult English Learners and Teachers by Clarena Larrotta.

An Interview with Xiao-lei Wang, author of Maintaining Three Languages

This month we published Maintaining Three Languages by Xiao-lei Wang which explores her experience of bringing up teenagers multilingually. We asked Xiao-lei a few questions about her book.

Maintaining Three LanguagesWhat makes your book different from others that have been published before?

There are numerous ways in which my new book differs from other books currently on the market. Due to space limit, I will only mention a few here.

  • Unlike most parenting advice books, in which parents tend to be treated as passive readers and are rarely provided with access to original sources, this book takes a different approach by considering parents as active and intelligent readers. To this end, parents are provided with original research sources; references and further readings are suggested at the end of each chapter for those interested in pursuing the topics discussed. In the same vein, some jargon and technical terminologies regarding multilingualism are deliberately introduced to empower parents to access research literature directly if they wish to do so. When jargon and technical terms are introduced, they are explained in simpler language.
  • This book does not consider adolescents’ multilingual development as an isolated linguistic phenomenon; rather, it addresses multilingual development concurrently with other aspects of adolescent life such as biological, cognitive, and social development. The purpose is to encourage parents to consider taking a holistic approach that aims to cultivate a whole person rather than just a multilingual person.
  • This book addresses the impact of multilingual family welfare, a topic that has been largely neglected in the published literature. Parents from multilingual families often come from different cultural backgrounds. As a result, the multilingual childrearing process may affect the coherence and well-being of multilingual families. Practical strategies are provided to help parents be mindful of family well-being.
  • This book includes practical and easy-to-use language and literacy measures that parents can use to better understand their teen’s multilingual development of words, grammar and language production. By understanding their teen’s current heritage-language development levels, parents can focus on the areas in which their teen needs more support.
  • This book is written in a reader-friendly style with a balance of scholarly rigor and reader accessibility. To increase readers’ enjoyment, I have included many interesting and meaningful personal anecdotes. Parents will probably enjoy a book with real-life anecdotes more than a dry advice book that presents information out of context.

How will your readers find your book useful?

Readers may find my book useful in the following areas:

  • Because this book is rooted in my own child and adolescent rearing experiences in the everyday context, parents can easily relate to what I discussed in the book.
  • The practical strategies I proposed in the book can be implemented easily by parents. In addition, these strategies are based on research and personal practice.
  • This book provides parents a platform on which they can reflect on their own multilingual childrearing practice.
  • The book empowers parents by showing them that although multilingual childrearing is challenging, it is possible with the right strategies and support.

Was it difficult writing about your own children?

Not at all! On the contrary, I found that writing about my children has been the most enjoyable writing experience in my academic career. When writing other books or research articles, I can, once in a while, feel bored. This never happened when I wrote about my own children. In a way, this is natural: what can be more engaging when a mother writes about her own children, who are such an important part of her life?

What’s the most important advice you would offer to parents of multilingual teenagers?

To support adolescent multilingual development, I consider the following strategies crucial:

  • Raising a happy teen is more important than raising a multilingual teen. Thus, taking a holistic approach in promoting teens’ social, cognitive, and identity development should be a priority.
  • Parents need to change their roles from manager of their children’s lives to their consultants.
  • Set up realistic and achievable goals together with your teens about their multilingual development. Empower them by letting them be a part of the decision-making process involving their own multilingual development.

What are the advantages of growing up multilingual?

Research has shown that there are more advantages than disadvantages to being multilingual.

Cognitive and Academic Advantages

  • Multilinguals tend to be better at problem solving, because tackling a problem successfully requires focusing on some aspects of the information and ignoring the others (selective attention).
  • Multilinguals may possess an added mental flexibility and creativity because they regularly switch between different languages (mental flexibility).
  • Multilinguals tend to have more than one set of cultural tools with which to interpret the world. These tools can foster competent behaviors in multiple cultures. For instance, an individual who has extensive knowledge and experiences in cultures A and B may be able to retrieve ideas from cultures A and B spontaneously, place them in juxtaposition, and integrate the two into a novel idea through creative insight. This process is referred to as novel conceptual combination.
  • Multilinguals have an advantage in knowledge transfer from their different languages. Compared with monolinguals, multilinguals can benefit greatly from knowledge acquired in their multiple languages to enrich their learning and understanding.
  • Proficiency in more than one language has been shown to be associated with high academic achievement. Individuals who have the ability to switch between two or more languages also exhibit higher cognitive functioning than those who abandon one of their heritage languages. Research shows that when children were encouraged to further develop their home language, the skills they built in that language helped their mainstream language literacy development. In fact, the longer children receive reinforcement in their home language, the better they learn their mainstream language.

Linguistic Advantages

  • Multilingual individuals tend to have a metalinguistic advantage when compared to their monolingual counterparts. They are more sanative about the language phenomenon in their ambient languages.
  • They have more linguistic resources available to them.
  • The multilingual faculty also facilitates new language learning. This is perhaps because multilinguals are more experienced language learners who have potentially developed more language learning strategies than monolinguals and have a larger linguistic and intercultural repertoire at their disposal.

Other Advantages

  • In having knowledge about their heritage language(s), children and adolescents have an advantage in accessing their heritage culture and communicating with their heritage family. Research suggests that children who speak their parents’ heritage language(s) enjoy better relationships with their families and are less likely to be alienated from their parents and relatives.
  • Multilinguals have the privilege of accessing different sources of information and they can read books and newspapers, as well as watch news and films, in several languages. This makes them more versatile and helps them to approach things from multiple perspectives.
  • Moreover, multilingualism can increase a person’s social circle to include friends from many parts of the world. When travelling to another country, being able to speak the language really helps bring people together and facilitates communication, exchange and socialization.
  • Being multilingual has career advantages as well. In the increasingly globalized world, multilinguals have a competitive advantage in the job market.
  • Research has shown that people who are proficient in their heritage language tend to have higher self-esteem, are more confident in achieving goals, feel they have more control over their lives, and have more ambitious plans for the future.

Given all the advantages mentioned above and many others that I have not mentioned, it is definitely worthwhile to raise multilingual children and adolescents. As Stephen Krashen, an expert in second language learning, commented, “Heritage language development appears to be an excellent investment. For a small effort…the payoffs are enormous.” Another well-known multilingual expert, Colin Baker, also echoed that multilingualism has more advantages than drawbacks.

However, I would like to caution that multilingualism affects individuals differently. Some multilinguals may develop particularly strong intellectual and linguistic abilities as a byproduct of multiple language leaning and use. Other multilinguals may have relatively weaker abilities in their respective languages because input in or exposure to each language is not evenly distributed. It is important to have a realistic view of multilingual effects and understand that there is no guarantee that being multilingual will result in benefits that are associated with multilingualism as described above, nor does it suggest that multilingualism is the cause of all the problems. Thus, not all multilinguals will function superbly or equally well; rather, the multilingual effects on an individual depend on many complex factors, including the individual child or adolescent’s sociolinguistic environments, parental support, aptitude, motivation and personality.

What is your next research project?

I have several projects in progress. For example,

  • Multilingual children’s figurative language development (such as idioms)
  • Multilingual children’s syncretic language use
  • In addition, I plan to write a comprehensive handbook on multilingual children and adolescents, tentatively titled Everything You Want to Know about Bilingual and Multilingual Childrearing.

Growing up with Three LanguagesIf you found this interesting you might also like Xiao-lei’s other books: Growing up with Three Languages and Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Information about all her books can be found on our website.