Losing Native Language in a Family: Truth or Fiction

by multilingualmania on November 4, 2010

in bilingual parenting, Language Learning

Family reading
Guest Post from Robby Kukurs

With ever increasing immigration during the last decades more and more foreigners settle in English speaking countries. While there’s little concern regarding native language preservation in adults, children are the ones who can potentially lose connection with their native background if parents don’t pay enough attention to it.

I even know of foreigner families where they choose to use English as the main language, which I find quite strange. Whatever the reasons behind such a decision, I don’t think it is right. But then – what if those parents are simply pragmatists and don’t see much sense in teaching a language that their children don’t need in an English speaking society?

There is a host of factors influencing foreign language survival in English speaking countries, so let’s try to look at the most important of them!

First of all, it’s the environment at home. Unless both parents come from different foreign backgrounds, their native language will most likely be spoken at home. It’s pretty hard to imagine people who’d decide to do away with speaking their native tongue and switch over to English altogether. I don’t deny that it would actually be helpful to practice some English with each other – especially if there’s little contact with native English speakers. But let’s face the reality – the native language will be spoken within family and that’s completely normal, of course!

So how could a native language be losing its role within the family if it’s spoken on a daily basis? Well, let’s not forget that many parents are quite busy providing for their families and there’s less communication going on between them and the children as there should be. While the mother usually spends the first years taking care of the child at home, a kindergarten is definitely an option starting from as early as 2 or 3 years of age. So if the parents don’s spend enough time communicating with children at home, English can easily become their primary language!

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not advocating for not learning English! Of course it’s crucial for the child in an English speaking society to learn English as early as possible. What I’m saying is – if parents don’t create sufficient native language environment at home, English can become their children’s primary language due to lack of vocabulary and speaking skills in their native language.

The second factor determining native language usage is the community that the family lives in. Usually foreigners tend to stick together forming close communities and therefore their native languages are naturally kept alive. So if children have plenty of native speaking friends within community and also relatives they visit on a regular basis, their native language will be definitely used as means of communication.

However, if I look at my daughters, I see a completely different picture. There aren’t many native kids in the estate we live in and my daughters spend all of their time with Irish children. This is great of course for their English, there’s no doubt about that! But this also means I need to spend extra time speaking with them in Latvian at home about various topics so that they develop their native vocabulary and other means of expression.

Not all parents, however, have enough time or dedication to pursue such activities and that’s where their native language can start suffering. Some people may think that a language is learnt once the child has acquired the basic conversational language by the age of six or seven. In reality, plenty more of advanced vocabulary is added on later in life.

Especially considering that the child doesn’t get any education in native language it isn’t hard to imagine that by the age of say, eighteen, they might have it easier to express themselves in English than in their native tongue!

Thirdly, there is the factor of remaining connected with the home country.

Regardless or whether the child immigrated to the English speaking country at a very early age or was born in it, there are definitely plenty of relatives left back in the home country. And it’s no wonder that the native language plays a huge role in maintaining relationships and keeping in touch with the relatives abroad!

Personally I can tell you that my daughters spend around eight weeks with their grandparents, aunts and cousins back in my home country every summer. And I think it’s crucial for them as individuals and also members of the larger family. Being together strengthens bonds between grandchildren and grandparents, and also it’s great to maintain the national spirit and customs. Speaking entirely in their native language contributes a lot into its development, so I’d say it’s an ideal scenario for any foreign family living abroad!

But if the moments of seeing each other are limited to short annual visits or even less frequently, the native language may suffer. I’ve even heard of stories of grandparents not being able to communicate with their grandchildren because they can’t speak their native language!

Having spent much of my own time as a child with my grandparents I can tell you from my own experience that it’s crucial for any child to be an active member of the larger family. Is it possible without speaking the native language? I don’t think so!

As you can see, there are lots of challenges for foreign families living in English speaking countries. Some may even feel looked down at for using their native languages so they might start using English in public. Some foreigners, on the other hand, aren’t motivated enough to learn sufficient English and in this case we’re looking at the other extreme end of spectrum of language issues.

If the world were an ideal place, all foreign settlers in countries like the United States, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland would speak fluent English while at the same time maintaining their native languages at home.

Life being the way it is, however, we can observe different scenarios taking place. While in large foreigner communities there could be issues with integration within the English speaking society, other second and third generation immigrants may have lost their native languages entirely.

What is the bottom line? Well, it’s kind of hard to draw it here, but I think it’s about everyone doing to the best of their abilities. Once you live in an English speaking country – respect its society and make effort to learn the language of the host country. Also don’t forget that your native language is what defines you as a person. Pass it on to your children as much as you can!

It’s understandable that most families wouldn’t have enough time to educate children into writing and reading their native language. And we have to admit that over generations the language may transform and may become merely as means of verbal communication within the family. But at least put the minimum effort into speaking with your children in your native language by saying more than just ‘Have you done your home work yet? Turn of the TV, it’s ten o’clock already!’

About the Author: Robby Kukurs is a Latvian national living in Ireland for more than eight years with his wife and twin daughters. Robby posts on his blog about improving spoken English after having struggled for years to achieve so much needed English fluency that any foreigner needs when living in an English speaking country!

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