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Posts Tagged ‘Minority language’

I think the title of this post is somewhat ironic, because the majority of nations throughout the world are multilingual, and the US’s predominant monolingualism and angst over establishing English as the official language is truly a peculiarity of our country.  I don’t think parents in Africa are saying to themselves, how do I encourage my child to be bilingual?  Most people around the world grow up bi- or multilingual by default, but even parents raising children in a multilingual country can worry that their child will learn and retain a minority language that is not common in their country.  By “minority language,” I mean the language not commonly spoken in the country or taught in school.  So for instance, in my marriage English would be the majority language because I live in the US, and Spanish (my husband’s native language) would be the minority language because it is not taught to young school children or spoken in most situations.

My background is in sociolinguistics, so I had actually done some reading and studying on this topic before even becoming pregnant, but it’s obviously gained a new saliency for me.  I’ve started collecting books on this topic again, mostly because while I had learned about child language acquisition and bilingualism in grad school, no one had ever taught me about biliteracy.  I realized I had no idea how to raise a child that is not only verbally proficient but also able to read and write in another language.

Currently, it’s become trendy to support the “one parent one language” model, in which each parent speaks exclusively in one of the two languages you are trying to teach your child.  It’s thought it will make it easier for children to learn to separate the languages.  However, this method shows less success if the parent who works the most (often the father) is the speaker of the minority language and thus not available as often to provide as much input in that language. (That would be our family situation.)

It’s common for researchers to suggest that you have a regular “system” set up for when you speak the language with rules, such that perhaps you always speak the minority language at home but switch to the majority language in public, or perhaps even in public you always use the minority language.  Maybe the parents use the majority language with each other, one parents use the minority language with the child, and the other parent uses the majority language with the child.  Their emphasis is on these interactions being rule-governed.

I tend to think this theory is crap.  My husband and I don’t have a rigid system for what language we speak with each other.  We both speak both English and Spanish very fluently, and while there are certain situations when we tend to use one language rather than another, the majority of our conversations are characterized by code-switching (switching back and forth between languages within the same conversation, or even the same sentence).

I definitely want my husband to speak in Spanish to our daughter (and he plans to) so we can maximize the amount of native speaker input that she has in the minority language.  However, I don’t think it will hurt our daughter if I speak to her in a combination of English and Spanish, or if her dad uses English sometimes when he talks to her.  Children who grow up in multilingual countries sort those languages out into distinct languages that are appropriate to use in certain contexts, and I believe that she will be able to do the same.  After all, she will interact with her monolingual grandparents on both sides.  She will probably go to day-care with my mother-in-law, where Spanish will be the appropriate language, and to preschool, where English will be the appropriate language.  These will be opportunities for her to learn how to speak in only one language with certain people, and I don’t think we need to start enforcing that at home before she’s even in school.

My greatest worry is not that she will be confused, but that some day she will decide that because her friends don’t speak Spanish, she doesn’t want to either.

 

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