Family language acquisition, maintenance and loss: what can immigrant parents do?

Khadij Gharibi joined our school in late 2012 to start her PhD research. Having seen some children of immigrant families unable to communicate in their ethnic language, she decided to study heritage language acquisition, maintenance and loss in immigrant families in New Zealand. She graduated in December 2016 and here talks a little about her research.

Khadij conducted a mixed-method project with a quantitative investigation on heritage language loss as well as a qualitative investigation on heritage language acquisition and maintenance. She measured heritage language proficiency of Persian-English bilingual children in New Zealand to find out how influential some variables are.

“I aimed to find the effect of some demographic variables such as age, age at emigration and length of emigration. To know immigrant parents’ role in heritage language development, I explored their attitudes towards ethnic language acquisition and maintenance for their children.”image1

This research showed that although some demographic factors such as age at emigration are very important in family language proficiency, immigrant parents can still help their children develop high levels of heritage language knowledge.

“Immigrant parents can use their ethnic language as the main language of the home. In addition, they can expose their children to the heritage language in different ways. Spending time with friends from their home country, visits to the home country, watching movies in their ethnic language and literacy in the ethnic language are some of the important ways.”

Khadij also has collaborations with the Community Languages Association of New Zealand (CLANZ), which supports immigrant children, families and communities to facilitate intergenerational transmission of their ethnic languages. She is passionate about transmitting research-driven findings on bilingualism in children to academic and non-academic audiences including parents and teachers.

“I realized that immigrant parents seem to be unaware of the critical role they can play in raising their children bilingually. As an Applied Linguist, I felt responsible in raising immigrant parents’ awareness in this regard.”

So, she devised an outline for a series of workshops for parents of heritage speakers, held by CLANZ for Mother Languages Day in different cities in New Zealand.

“The facilitation of these workshops has deepened my understanding of the challenges immigrant families face in heritage language acquisition and maintenance.”

She also says: “it’s challenging but it’s doable!”

One of her main goals in conducting her doctoral research was “to make practical implications in the areas of heritage language acquisition and maintenance”. She hopes her research can make a change in young heritage speakers’ lives by raising immigrant parents’ awareness on what they can do in regards to providing the opportunity of bilingualism for their children.

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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