It takes a village to raise a bilingual child:
Let’s ban old myths and build a village that welcomes all languages!
For centuries, we have seen families across the world moving to a new country, adapting to a new way of living and hoping that their children would have better opportunities, develop a strong sense of belonging and retain some attachment to their heritage. We also know that for many years migrants have been told not to speak their language to their children or to prioritise the language of the place where they settled. The negative attitudes towards bilingualism have pervaded most western societies in the last century, meaning that many families have missed out on the opportunity of passing their language to their children.
The belief that it is best to only speak one language has created fictitious hierarchies of languages, pushing society to believe that languages cannot co-exist harmoniously.
To this day, some of the common myths about bilingualism are still widespread. I regularly meet parents from all corners of the world who tell me that they are not sure whether speaking their own language to their children while living in Ireland is a good idea. They are afraid that their child might not integrate, that they may not cope with two languages or they fear the judgement of others.
Some other parents say that they were keen on giving the gift of language to their children, but were told not to do it. Some stopped speaking their language to their children because their GP, speech and language therapist, public health nurse or preschool teacher had recommended to “stick to English”. I am certain that every single person who gave this recommendation had a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the child and did not mean any harm. After all, many people survive just speaking one language, so what is the harm?
Language is connection
All the research points in the same direction: to say it in a few words, the seemingly harmless piece of advice to not speak one’s mother tongue has consequences in a child’s life way beyond childhood. If the parents follow this advice, their child won’t grow up immersed in the language of the parents, often hearing the parents or grandparents use the language, but being disconnected from the conversation, as the family have chosen a different language to communicate with the child. This can cause the child, and later the adult, to feel that they don’t fully belong. Another obvious consequence is that the child might be completely disconnected from family members who only speak that language. We hear endless stories of young adults who are desperate to reconnect with their heritage in order to put together the pieces of their identity puzzle, but not having the language stops them from rebuilding meaningful relationships with their extended family.
The incredible contradiction about this is that people who give up their own language may do it in favour of integration, without realising that connection to one’s heritage is fundamental to the development of a strong sense of identity, which in turn supports successful integration. Living through more than one language or culture is not what makes children feel “different”. What makes children feel different is the judgment of people who think that living through more than one language or culture is not “the norm”.
Why did you not speak your language to me?
To an outsider, children who don’t speak the language of their parents may seem indifferent to it. After all, they speak English, and this language is allowing them to make friends, succeed in school, build a career nationally or internationally. Of course, children are not indifferent to their family’s languages. In my experience with children and young adults I have seen that it can take as long as 20 years for someone to verbalise their feelings and finally turn to the parents to say: “why did you not speak your language to me”?
At that point, that seemingly harmless piece of advice or passing remark that impacted the parents’ decision may seem very distant. At the time it might have seemed like a good idea to stick to one language, but years later it is impossible to rebuild 20 years of language development, 20 years of connections, experiences, friendships.
This is why Mother Tongues exists. Because in 20 years’ time we want to hear positive stories of adults who have grown strong in their linguistic and cultural identity, in all of its complexity and its surprising discoveries.
We exist because we want to make sure that parents develop successful approaches to raising children with multiple languages, confident in the support of others throughout this journey. For this reason, we have developed a range of initiatives for parents and we continue to reach more and more parents every year across the island of Ireland.
We know that for change to happen we can’t place all the burden on parents. We need everyone in society to be positive about bilingualism and supportive of parents who make the choice to pass their mother tongue to their children. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is really key in this context. A parent alone cannot withstand the challenges of passing their own language to their child if this is seen negatively by others.
At Mother Tongues, we work tirelessly to build an Ireland where families, communities and professionals work together to empower each child to embrace all of their languages and cultures and respect and value those of others.
You can come on the journey with us this year and celebrate International Mother Language Day throughout February 2022. No matter how big or small your involvement will be, it will be significant in showing that multilingualism is something to celebrate together!
Dr Francesca La Morgia
Director and founder of Mother Tongues