why many experts think families who speak multiple languages should just go with the flow

Many of us not only live in diverse societies, but what anthropologist Steven Vertovec calls “super-diverse” societies. More and more people are moving around and bringing their languages ​​and cultures together.

In the UK, 20% of school children are multilingual. They speak at least one other language besides English.

Of course, parents have a lot on their plate to simply keep their children fed, safe and educated. But if you have more than one language in your family, decisions need to be made about how to navigate that site as well.

If linguists have long paid attention to the idea of ​​bilingual parenting, a new appreciation of linguistic and cultural complexity in super-diverse societies has seen the advent of a new approach. What experts call multilingualism considers language use to be fluid and dynamic.

Previous theories about language learning in homes, where multiple languages ​​are present, have often advocated strict rules. The one-language-one-parent policy sees to it that each parent speaks only their first language to the child to avoid confusion. Other immigrant parents meanwhile decide to speak only their heritage language at home while learning the local language at school.

Adopting a multilingual approach, on the other hand, brings some relief. It suggests that you can simply go with the flow. You can mix things up by using different languages ​​in different situations.

Primary school children in uniform sit on the ground and look in the same direction.
Multilingual pedagogy seeks to build on students’ linguistic awareness and cultural knowledge.
Rawpixel.com | Shutterstock

The celebration of language diversity

We already know how important multilingualism is in teaching, in terms of both the academic achievement and the well-being of multilingual students.

To understand how this translates to the home domain, I conducted a study in 2018 with 20 parents who immigrated to Canada from nine countries in Central and Eastern Europe. I have found that the type of parenting they have instinctively adopted is truly multilingual.

The parents I spoke to believe in the fluent and dynamic use of languages ​​in their family. Many send their children to French immersion programs, where instruction is in both English and French. But parents assume that their children’s French proficiency is unlikely to match their English language skills.

On a daily basis, parents and children alternate between languages. They may begin one sentence in one language and end in another. When grandparents visit Europe, the children have to switch to the language they speak. But when a friend comes for a play date, they then opt for English.

Multilingual parenting involves a liberal language policy. Many parents do not believe in punishing children for speaking the “wrong” language at home. Even those who were strict when children were born soon realized that their children alternated back and forth between languages. And parents are okay with that.

Finally, an important principle for multilingual parenting is the interrelationship between language and culture. Immigrant parents move across borders and also carry their culture with them. Language is crucial to identity and belonging and immigrant parents negotiate this issue on a regular basis in their homes.

A Ukrainian mother and daughter in traditional embroidered tops with red headscarves.
Parents appreciate the connection between their heritage language and culture.
Denys Poliakov | Shutterstock

Speaking Bulgarian in Canada connects children to their parents’ country, even if they consider themselves Canadians. It is especially important for parents to maintain their heritage language and they also communicate this importance to their children. As one Ukrainian parent put it:

This is our history, this is our heritage.

To be open to language learning

You may have heard that two languages ​​in the family confuse children, slow down their language development and are bad for school performance. These are, in fact, myths that researchers have spent decades unmasking.

In contrast, research has also shown that there are cognitive benefits to bilingualism. However, many bilingual parenting approaches have warned in various ways against the introduction of new languages ​​too early in the child’s life or the mixing of languages. Another general piece of advice is to ensure that the child learns only from so-called mother tongue speakers to get a perfect accent, impeccable grammar and a rich vocabulary.

These kinds of self-imposed rules bring discord into family life when parents try to “police” the language use of their children, but are usually met with resistance.

Multilingualism, on the other hand, stems from a new understanding of how languages ​​are used. Especially in the field of English language teaching, it emphasizes a more fluid approach to how students can be taught.

This line of thinking appreciates all the languages ​​that any given student can use, albeit to varying degrees. It seeks to build on their linguistic awareness, their cultural knowledge and their openness to learn languages ​​while improving their target language.

And in line with previous studies of multilingual learners, all students in my study did well academically, whether they were in English schools, bilingual French immersion schools or in the international baccalaureate. There is clearly no harm in preserving one’s heritage language and culture. And this flexible family language policy saves parents and children from so many fights.

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