There is a certain intimacy that comes with sharing a heritage language with someone you love. This is not a value statement. It’s no more or less intimate, just an additional layer in an intricately woven tapestry.
With intimacy comes connection. With connection comes empathy and a deep sense of unspoken understanding. Compassion. Affinity.
Intuitively, we know that people who speak other languages may be better able to connect with people of other cultures. Research now supports the notion that multilingual people are better able to feel compassion and empathy for others.
For many bicultural families, raising children that are fluent in their heritage language can be one of their biggest parenting challenges. Quite often, it becomes a power struggle that causes anxiety and contention.
When children enter a community language school system, these challenges increase exponentially, often ending with parents giving up on the heritage language as they navigate the path of least resistance. This is the time when some children reject their heritage language entirely in an attempt to assimilate. Sometimes, they’re just too weary and aren’t up for the challenge of communicating effectively in a language that feels less and less fluid for them.
Recently on a trip with some Iranian-American bicultural friends, we were discussing the challenges of raising bilingual kids as they get older and go on to primary and middle school. Two mothers (one American, the other Iranian) agreed with each other that it is "impossible" for children to continue to connect with their parents on a deep level in their heritage language once they go to English language school. When I disagreed (based on my own experiences), I was told that my situation "doesn't count" - that it's the exception - that it was because I was "tough" on my kids when it comes to language.
Consistent? Yes. Tough? I honestly don't think so. I choose kindness and compassion over antagonism.
When discussing her child who refused to speak Persian with her (despite speaking it with others), a friend once told me "I don't want to have that type of relationship with my kids." I’m coming to learn that there is the common misconception that if someone is successful in teaching heritage language or maintaining native fluency at home, then it's because they're "tough" or "strict" or "controlling."
This may be true for some families, but I have never told my children that they have to speak Persian. From the time they were in Kindergarten, I told them that it was their choice - and if they choose to speak Persian to each other, there will be times when they will forget and revert to speaking English. In those times, they know that I am happy to help them (by reminding them with a special code word, for example), but I will not under any circumstances force them to speak the language.
Not to me. Not to each other. Not to anyone.
I have gone so far as to encourage them to save themselves (and me) the effort and to "please just speak English with each other."
It made my younger son cry.
I’m not proud of it and I felt terrible about it at the time, but I must confess that a small part of me was relieved.
This cannot come from me; it must come from them. Because I don't want to be that kind of parent either.
My boys, now 9 and 12, still speak Persian with each other more often than not, despite having an American father and going to an English language school in the mornings. It must be noted that we are incredibly fortunate to have a daily Persian language immersion after school program and a large community of really amazing bicultural families with shared values that comes along with it.
So to those who think the only way to have a bilingual school-aged child is to run an autocratic home, please know that there is another way that is kind and gentle and playful and loving.
Empower your children to take ownership of their choice to speak the language, and then offer to support them if they want you to. If they genuinely want it, then they’ll most likely welcome your help.
12 Ways to gently empower your children:
1. Bring them into the process. Discuss the fact that you need their help to practice speaking your heritage language or you’ll forget it.
2. Find a language immersion school in your area. If there isn’t one, start one. If that’s crazy talk, see below.
3. Socially expose your child to other children that speak the language in a closed environment - not public - as often as possible. In a public environment, the children are more likely to speak the community language with each other. In this scenario, as tempting as it is to spend time with the other parents, take turns engaging and playing with the children in the minority language.
4. Regardless of their age, read to them in the heritage language daily. You can do this by translating books from English if this is your preference as it is mine. It takes some training, mind you, but I’m convinced that it will ward off dementia. As your kids get older, have them translate to a sibling or to you. It’s quite fun for them once they get the hang of it.
5. Make up stories and fairytales daily. The beauty of this is that you are not limited by the context of a book - you can embellish your story to your (and your child’s) content while feeding their imagination. Have them participate in the storytelling. Use language that is increasingly sophisticated and articulate clearly so that they may hear and learn new words so that they may develop a richer repertoire. And if the moral of the story is to be kind to all humanity, all the better!
6. Speak only one language to your child. The One Person One Language (OPOL) approach tends to be effective for most families. Even if you feel a little bit rusty, you can use this as an opportunity to increase your own fluency. If you have more than one child, encourage the older sibling to help you teach your language the younger one.
7. Whenever your child speaks to you in your community language, repeat the sentence back for them to repeat in your heritage language. In this scenario, you are not responding to the statement (“oh, you want some water?”) you providing the language they need to repeat back to you (“Say I want some water please”). The key here is consistency; If your response is consistent each and every time, eventually your child will use the words s/he knows so as to avoid the back and forth/translating. Again, you can do this with kindness – you are not adversaries.
8. Let your child attempt to finish his/her thoughts without putting words in his/her mouth, even if it slows down your conversation.
a. Instead of finishing your child’s sentences, offering guidance when s/he gets stuck can be much more effective in helping the child’s language development. You can ask “do you mean dog?” When s/he responds affirmatively say: “what did you mean?” so that s/he can repeat the full sentence back again.
Conversations may be tediously slow to start, but in time you should notice a reduction in the level of effort your child makes when allowed to complete their own thoughts and sentences.
9. If you sense your child is speaking in the community language because it’s easier, try asking him/her to repeat the last sentence because you didn’t understand it. Remind them to think about what they want to say before repeating the sentence. Note, never tell a child you do not understand a language if this is not true as this models deceptive behavior.
10. Some families find it helpful to make an announcement that, as of a specific time, they will no longer be speaking the community language at home. Ritualizing (blowing out candles and eating a celebratory meal, for example) can help make this a special and memorable occasion. Incentives can also be helpful: “if we can go for one week without speaking a word of English, we’ll celebrate by going camping.”
11. Remember that as frustrating as it is for you, it is not your child’s fault if s/he doesn’t speak your language. It can be helpful to ask your children to support you so that you do not respond when spoken to in the community language. This is exceptionally empowering for them.
For example, your child can give you a “ticket” every time you do not prompt them to repeat a sentence in your heritage language. Once you collect a certain number of tickets (~20), you will have to do something you reallyreally don’t like. Some of the families I’ve worked with opt to eat a worm once they collect 20 tickets (I don’t think anyone has ever actually done it though). The point of this exercise is for the consequences to be real so that you, the parent, will be more disciplined and consistent.
12. You should never be stern with your child when asking him/her to speak your language. With loving and playful yet consistent encouragement, your child will soon embrace his/her heritage language as a language s/he chooses to speak.
13. You should let your child(ren) come up with the rules and the consequences. If s/he opts for negative consequences, see if you can turn it around and make them positive (a family trip or a party for reaching a big milestone, for example). True empowerment doesn't come from being punished or dictated to, it comes from feeling in control while being loved and supported.
Every family has its own culture, just as every child is different. There is no formula to plug in, but where there is a will, I know there is always a gentle way.
If you need help, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll brainstorm ways to make this work for your family.