Sunday, December 19, 2010

What about the mother tongue?

Raising your children in more than one language is a continuous process. This learning journey for the whole family needs strategies, skills and support. When parents help each other and share experiences and resources, success is pretty much guaranteed. Professional assistance and support adds to the mix.

Migrants come in all sizes and shapes but many of them abandon the mother language upon arrival. Why do many migrants have monolingual children? Why is having more than one language not recognised as a desirable skill? Is there any value in the maintenance of the mother tongue and language learning in general?

All parents want their children to achieve well, not only academically . The benefits of the raising children in the family language have been  researched extensively and are proven regarding cognitive skills, enhanced analytical thinking, better communication skills and cultural awareness. The benefits of having more than one language in old age are also well documented.
I migrated to Australia in 1995 from Germany. In 2000 I already had two children, Theresa aged 4 and Miles aged 2. I always spoke German with my children and only slowly learnt the vocabulary that I had never come across in my academic English tuition at high school and law school, such as 'skivvy' and 'bib'. Still I was very concerned when soon after entering childcare and kindergarten my children responded to my German words in English only. Looking for support I phoned every parent support agency but there was not much useful feedback. Information was scarce and not at all satisfying. Being bilingual was considered as my private decision. The benefits for the whole society were not at all recognised.

Nothing much has changed in the past ten years. Australia’s monolingual mindset is unchallenged and language learning is still way down the agenda. However some positive signs have appeared in the past years. Since June 2007 Australia’s major universities (the Group of 8) are giving a credit of 10% towards the TEE entrance score to all applicants who chose a language as TEE subject. The Commonwealth government is providing significant money into school tuition of Asian languages, encompassing Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese.

But where is the support for the parents? Who assists parents who at the birth of a child have to make the decision what language they speak to the child? What information is provided to newly arrived migrants in the settlement package about family language maintenance? What is the information that helps people to decide whether they continue using the family language at home and in the community? 

Language loss in my village
It is not a new issue and the issue is not an Australian issue only. I grew up in a small village in rural Lower Saxony in the North of Germany near Hanover the former capital of Prussia. As a child I witnessed how using the local village dialect was discouraged by a post war parent generation who wanted their children to succeed academically. When my grandmother was young everybody spoke 'plattdeutsch', the local dialect of the area. She was born in 1900 and people identified which village a person came from by the way they pronounced the local dialect. The use of the dialect was quite flexible and it even incorporated some French words, such as ‘trottoir’ or ‘chaiselongue’ that were left behind from Napoleon’s occupation at the start of the 19th century. But neither my grand-parents nor my parents addressed us children in the local dialect. With us they only spoke 'hochdeutsch', the written language. Nevertheless, we learnt to understand it by listening to their conversations, especially when they tried to keep things secret from our ears. As a child I could understand it well but I never spoke it much, always responded in the proper words as used in the written language.

Language learning in German schools
Learning other languages was part of my daily school life, having learnt English from Year 5, French from Year 7 and even some Latin from Year 9. When migrating to Australia I was surprised that not everybody could see the opportunities, strengths and richness for the individual and the society through a diversity of maintained languages. The monolingual mindset became obvious to me quite early. The passion for language learning was not a passion mainstream Australians would easily embrace, such as the passion for sport. But migrating in the mid 90ies I experienced a lot more admiration for the knowing of another language than some migrants who arrived in the 60ies or 70ies.

Benefits of speaking and learning more than one language can be identified at a personal level, for the family and the society as a whole.

1.      Develop language potential to the fullest, as all children can attain high level of proficiency of another language in addition to English
2.      Children are able to understand themselves and their family better, feeling at home in other cultures
3.      Range of recent studies give evidence having more than one language is good for your brain
  • Increased cognitive thinking skills
  • Bilinguals are superior on divergent thinking
  • There is a link between metalinguistics awareness and reading readiness in children
  • Positive impact on brain development for children with two languages by age of five
  • Increases the amount of dense material in the brain with possible benefits for functionality of the brain at old age
4.      Experience of learning more than one language gives us wider perspective on ourselves, on our place in the world, on those who are different to us.
5.      Ability to communicate with other languages and culture
6.      Benefit to national economy, enhancing Australian competitiveness – attracting global companies to Australia.

Unfortunately these benefits are not widely recognised and understood and professionals still advise people to stop speaking the mother tongue with the aim of not confusing the children with two languages.

We need to do better and embrace our language resources as we embrace our mining resources!

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