How parental identity impacts language transmission

How parental identity impacts language transmission

When we talk about families with multiple languages, the spotlight often falls on children as they develop language. We often don’t talk enough about the role parents play and about their own unique journey. These parents, often part of the “middle generation”, find themselves at the crossroads of languages and generations. They bridge the gap between their heritage and the dominant language. This balancing act can be quite a responsibility. Even if there aren’t grandparents or other family members involved, these parents still act as cultural ambassadors, weaving a bridge between cultures and languages, which can sometimes feel overwhelming.

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Cultural Identity and Language Burden

For these parents, there’s a tug-of-war between blending into the dominant culture and preserving their own heritage. The dominant language often takes centre stage due to its perceived practicality and usefulness, but the heritage language is a cornerstone of their cultural identity. This dynamic can create tension, leading to emotional strains across generations.

The Weight of Culture

These parents carry not just the responsibility of language education but also the weight of representing an entire culture. It’s a role that can be both empowering and exhausting. Think about it, being the sole cultural representative is an enormous pressure, especially when no community support is available. This weight can lead to feelings of inadequacy and fatigue, as it’s impossible for one person to embody an entire culture.

Choices and Challenges in Language Transmission

Some parents actively invest in nurturing their children’s heritage languages, while others focus more on the dominant language. This difference in approach can stem from various reasons – comfort levels, perceived value of languages and more.

A Shift in Perspective: Embracing Parental Identity

Looking beyond the role of decision-makers, we see parents navigating a path that deeply impacts their own identity. This shift in perspective is crucial. It’s not just about outcomes, but about the journey itself. Parents often internalise feelings of guilt and responsibility, which can be alleviated by acknowledging that their journey is as important as the destination.

Nurturing Chinese and English in a Multilingual Household

Now, let’s dive into the stories of the real stars – the parents. Our first spotlight is on Chun, a parent who participated in Language Explorer workshops organized by Mother Tongues. Chun, like the others, carries the vibrant tapestry of languages in her family while living in Dublin. With her unique perspective, we’ll explore her experiences, challenges and the beauty of raising bilingual children in a multicultural society.

“Sometimes when we go out, say in a park or in a shop, if I speak Chinese to them, I feel I'm being rude, even though it's just in my head.”

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Bridging Two Worlds: Chun's Multilingual Landscape

Chun’s linguistic journey begins with two languages: Chinese and English. While English came into her life through schooling, her fluency blossomed during her stint working at an international bar. Settling in Dublin and building a relationship with an English-speaking partner further supported her English proficiency. Interestingly, despite her fluency in Chinese, Chun now finds that English has become her primary language of thinking and communication. This shift, she explains, has transformed her connection with Chinese, especially considering that before having children she had very little chance of using Chinese. Once she became a mother, she felt she had to try speaking her mother tongue with them, but she found it challenging.

“When they started talking I tried to speak Chinese as well. I don't know where I lost myself. Gradually, I started using English a little bit more, and then more and more. I think now I kind of totally lost Chinese. I want to pass on Chinese to my children, of course. But… I don't know, it's very hard.”

The Translator and Educator Role: Chun's Dual Burden

Chun acknowledges the challenge of conveying complex emotions and concepts in Chinese, which sometimes feels like a foreign territory to her children. As they are exposed to Chinese less than to English, her perception is that they may not fully understand her:

“I'd love to...talk a lot of Chinese to them, but sometimes I talk too fast. I think they look a bit confused.”

Navigating Challenges

Every multilingual household faces a unique set of decisions and challenges. For Chun, the path of passing on her heritage languages has been an intricate one, marked by the complexities of multilingual parenting. 

“They make some effort in speaking Chinese with my mum, but don’t make any effort with me.”

Despite her determination and initial efforts, the road has been anything but smooth, and she’s encountered hurdles that have led her to alter her approach.

“I still sent the older one to Chinese school but there's only one hour every week. I feel that's not enough.”

Chun’s journey has involved seeking guidance from organisations like Mother Tongues, underscoring her commitment to fostering multilingualism within her family. Her partner predominantly speaks English, creating an environment where her children naturally gravitate toward the language most prevalent in their daily interactions. This challenge resonates with many parents who witness their children embracing the language spoken around them.

Common Themes and Shared Experiences

This family’s story echoes themes found within Mother Tongues’ extensive research, conducted in 2023 by Trinity College researcher Nora Louwagie. Like many multilingual parents, Chun grapples with societal bias and the omnipresence of the dominant language.

“All around us, there’s English. Their school is in English, my friends use English, their friends use English… There’s very very little space for the Chinese language.”

The weight of translating complex emotions and maintaining language balance within her household emerges as a key challenge. Furthermore, the absence of tools, such as dedicated time, poses an obstacle to enhancing her children’s language skills.

“Sometimes when we go out, say in a park or in a shop, if I speak Chinese to them, I feel I'm being rude, even though it's just in my head.”

Additionally, Chun, alongside other parents, faced an unforeseen challenge, such as the impact of the pandemic. The inability to travel and immerse her children in the culture she aims to transmit has posed an unexpected hurdle in her multilingual journey.

“Because of the pandemic, we haven’t travelled to China in the past few years. But I am convinced that if we go there for a holiday, it would be really easier for them to grasp some Chinese. They could easily negotiate at the shops to help my husband, like little translators, I think.”

A Glimpse into the Multilingual Path Ahead

Chun’s story is just one facet of the diverse tapestry of multilingual parenting. Each parent’s journey is unique, shaped by personal motivations, challenges, and triumphs. As we continue to explore the stories of other parents in our series, we’ll uncover a wealth of experiences that mirror the complexities and joys of raising bilingual children.

We will continue our journey into the lives of more parents who are shaping the linguistic landscape of their families, communities, and beyond. In the meantime, we invite you to explore our Learning Hub to take advantage of the many articles and resources designed for parents of bilingual children.

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