Family language policy

Recent PhD graduate Melanie Revis reports on her study.

New Zealand has become a home for people from all over the world. As families settle and bring up their children, one important question many ask is what role their heritage language can play in New Zealand, and whether they should maintain it. For the children, learning English is especially easy because of their young age. However, if they are to maintain their minority language they definitely require further input, and one very important place for the children’s language development is the home. This means the parents have the important task of providing an environment where the children can practice their minority language comfortably and frequently.

My research investigated the ways parents deal with this challenge of maintaining their heritage languages. Using an ethnographic approach with (Spanish-speaking) Colombian and (Amharic-speaking) Ethiopian refugees in Wellington, I lived alongside members of the two ethnic communities and observed their language use in different situations. I interviewed 29 mothers (14 and 15 from each community respectively) and 17 of their children. Recording interactions in the home of three Colombian families, provided insights into the ways language use was negotiated between the different family members. As a result I gained valuable awareness of the family members’ attitudes towards language maintenance in New Zealand, as well as an understanding of the dynamic aspects of language use between parents and children in everyday contexts.

Almost all Ethiopian and Colombian families wanted their children to continue to speak their heritage language. Only one mother maintained that it was up to the children whether they wanted to speak Spanish in the future or not; all others argued that it was essential that their children speak their heritage language to communicate with their grandparents, understand their culture and history, and have the advantages of being bilingual. Teaching their language to their children was therefore an important step in attaining that goal.

However, my data showed that in reality it was not always easy to encourage the children to speak Amharic and Spanish. Particularly those that had children that were very young when they immigrated, or those that had given birth in New Zealand, witnessed how their children picked up English very easily through day-care and school. Observations and recordings showed that since the children spent a large part of their day in these institutions, they preferred to use English, instead of the heritage language, in the home. So what did parents who were committed to maintaining the heritage language do in response to this?

Families indicated a range of reactions to their children’s English use. Some parents started to speak English themselves, because they thought this was a useful thing to do as they were living in New Zealand. They believed their children were unlikely to forget their heritage language. (However, extensive linguistic research shows that children need constant input and practice opportunities to strengthen their language skills. If this is not provided, they may easily lose proficiency in the language.) Other parents let their children speak English but sometimes modelled what they should have said in the heritage language. In these cases the parents most often continued to speak their own language. Sometimes they had no other option but to respond in Spanish or Amharic because they had low proficiency in English and couldn’t understand what their children said.

Still other parents recognised that their children were not likely to keep their language automatically, and realised that language maintenance needed deliberate attention. They actively sought to provide entertainment for the child in the heritage language (such as songs and games; one family even translated songs from English into Amharic!). They interacted a lot with their children in their heritage language and held meaningful conversations in the language. They also modelled correct heritage language use to the child and provided gentle corrections when the child spoke. If available, they made sure to send their children to community events where the heritage language was used. Overall, they conceptualised interactions with their children as language teaching opportunities.

So what are your observations on raising children with a heritage language? What are things that have worked for you (or a neighbour or friend)? How can you encourage someone today to maintain their heritage language in New Zealand? These are rich linguistic and cultural resources which we should treasure and support, and which can make a positive difference both for the individual and for society.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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