A minority language parent’s attitude to his or her own language can be the deciding factor for how fluently the child will learn to speak the language. This is an interesting find from an on-going small-scale study of bilingual children. According to the study, a positive attitude towards the language plays a significant role in how well a child will be able to express himself/herself in the minority language. Even when children had the same amount of exposure to the minority language, those who grew up in a family where the language was valued more highly became more fluent speakers of the language. No difference was found in how well children understood the language. (I will be able to write more about the study after attending a conference on bilingualism in Malta later this month.)
What does this mean generally for families bringing up bilingual children?
Value your language and be a positive role model as a parent
The way you think about your language and use it around others will affect the way your child feels about it. Just because many people may not speak your language where you live, does not make it any less valuable!
If you live in a bilingual environment, but quickly switch to the majority language if the other person does not know your language as well, your child will notice this – so make it a habit to speak your language as often as you can.
If your language is not widely spoken in your community and you avoid using it in public with your child so not to exclude everyone else (even if your discussion has nothing to do with them), your child will behave in the same way and use your language less – so speak your language with your children, also in public.
Stay consistent in your language use – even if, and especially when, your child shows a tendency to use the majority language more. Persistence an patience will pay off in the long run, and your child will appreciate your efforts, perhaps not right away, but certainly, when she or he grows up.
Show pride in your language – speak to your child about why your mother tongue is important to you. Make plenty of resources available – books, music, films, toys – make your language a part of all aspects of your child’s life. Do not let it become something that only plays a supporting role, give it centre stage!
Make sure to not only pass on your language, but also the culture that it is part of. The more your child knows about the family roots and cultures the closer they will feel to the languages. The closer the connection, the higher the motivation to keep speaking it.