Safeguarding Your Home Language: Do Our Children Have to Choose Between Two Languages?

by multilingualmania on March 15, 2010

in bilingual parenting, Serving the Community

Authors: Regina Camargo and Eliana Elias

Many parents ask us how they can maintain their home language with their children and how they can teach their home language to the children born here. There are many ways and strategies that can be used to support the development and maintenance of the home language. There is not one single formula. Some strategies work better for some families than others. We have to take into consideration several variables, such as the parents’ levels of education, the temperament of family members, the other languages spoken by family members, etc. Nevertheless, we believe that a positive relationship within the family is crucial in any learning experience. Therefore, it is not our goal to provide you with a complete list of suggestions, but instead we will share some of the strategies that have helped us in our approach to raising bilingual children (in Regina’s case, multilingual!).

1. Make a conscious effort– The loss of the home language happens among immigrant groups. When children are surrounded by the dominant language, they tend to develop a preference for the language spoken at school, on the streets and in the media. Families who intend to safeguard the home language and to support the development of the home language among their children have to make a conscious effort.

2. Nurture positive relationships– Language is nothing more than a vehicle to bring people together. Humans are born with a natural instinct to communicate and the need to share experiences with other human beings. Relationships provide the foundation for all learning experiences. Positive relationships help in the formation of a receptive community, which in turn stimulates conversation.

3. Keep a natural tone– Many parents give up speaking their home language with their children when they start replying in the dominant language. Others become militaristic about it. They impose the use of the home language with such force that interactions between parents and their children turn into something unpleasant and negative. The ideal is to reach a balance. The best way to cultivate a language is to create an environment where no language is forbidden and the home language is cast in a positive light.

4. Create an environment where all family members can talk and exchange ideas– Many immigrants lead very busy lives. They work long hours. Nevertheless, it is important to create family routines, such as eating together, going to a park on the weekends, organizing outings and partaking in festivities organized by the community. All these activities establish an emotional foundation for the children. We have to deliberately create rituals so community members can find opportunities for daily communication in the home language.

5. Avoid using the children as interpreters for adults in the community– Children tend to learn the language of the host culture more rapidly than their parents. They, in turn, become the interpreters and the translators in many immigrant communities. While this practice may initially seem harmless, research has documented its negative effect in the formation of children’s identity. Having to play a role of such responsibility is confusing to children and it places them in a role reversal situation, in which the parents are perceived as incapable. This role reversal in the family hierarchy is even more troublesome amongst teenagers. Parents that learn the dominant language and try to maintain the family hierarchy intact have a higher chance to maintain a healthy relationship with their children.

6. Create opportunities to implement projects– Simple projects provide an opportunity to expand and enrich the vocabulary in a new and captivating context. Some ideas for projects may include things such as painting a room, making a cake, writing a story, sewing a piece of cloth and making a car out of pieces of wood. Children always love being involved in a project!

7. Look at the children as sources of inspiration– Observe the children’s “passions” and encourage them to explore their interests. Soccer? Animals? Music? Almost all subjects may be seen as rich sources for teaching and learning.

8. Pay attention to the “mistakes”– Make an effort not to turn yourself into a kind of “linguistic police” working against your children. Correcting grammar mistakes excessively may inhibit the natural development of the language. However, pay attention to the mistakes children make when speaking the home language for they may offer an interesting source of information. One of the strategies you can use to correct mistakes is to repeat the correct phrase back to the child as a natural part of the conversation. Another strategy is simply to take note of the mistake and bring it up in a different context.

9. Create a linguistically rich environment– Encourage listening to music from the home country, have books in the home languages and provide opportunities for conversation. Read to the children in the home language. We want to strongly emphasize the importance of reading and of making books available to the children. Books help to develop vocabulary as well as listening and comprehension skills. Furthermore, reading sparks creativity and it promotes general knowledge.

10. Avoid the excessive use of common words and try to use an expansive vocabulary– Living in a different country limits the source of linguist inspiration available to our children. Therefore, it is important that we make a constant effort to expose them to vocabulary that is more sophisticated and that goes beyond daily interactions. However, even our daily interactions can be an opportunity for introducing new words. For example, instead of simply saying: “This ice-cream tastes good”, exaggerate and say “This ice-cream is scrumptious. I have never tasted anything like it….it is heavenly!”

11. Use gestures and repetitions– Body language is a very valuable tool in communication. Incorporate gestures and body language in order to create a context in which words may fit in naturally. If the child does not understand something, avoid translating it. Instead, try changing the words and explaining it in a different way. Translate only when it is absolutely necessary.

12. Create situations that are fun and different– Outings, shows, and games are great ways to stimulate the imagination and to promote the use of the language.

13. Create and nurture communities– Children and adolescents need to be around people who will “mirror” their reality. Spending time with people from similar backgrounds help in the formation of a healthy cultural identity.

14. Show your interest and your appreciation for books and for the beauty of the language– Children imitate their parent’s behavior. Read to your children, read with your children and read while your children are observing you.

15. Invest in educational materials– Avoid being trapped by consumerism. Search for educational and reusable toys. Play is extremely important for children’s cognitive development.

16. Avoid “passive activities”– Children that spend too much time in front of the television or in front of the computer miss out on the chance of interacting with other people and playing with educational materials.

17. Build “bridges” between home and school– Even families who do not speak the dominant language should play an active role at their children’s education. Try to find ways to participate at your child’s school.

18. Cultivate a sense of pride for your culture, language and traditions– Language and culture are intimately connected.

19. Avoid being excessively patriotic– Many immigrant children will not return to live in their home country. The same applies to children born to immigrant parents in the U.S. In order to accept this reality we need to fully understand the role we have in the upbringing of children who are multicultural. Therefore, it is important that we cultivate an appreciation for all cultures and languages that surround us. It is also important that we don’t set the culture of the host country in competition with the culture of the home country.

20. Talk openly about cultural differences– Simple explanations, such as “in our country people kiss when they say hi and here people shake hands”. This kind of statement acknowledges differences in a descriptive manner rather than making judgmental remarks, such as, “in our country people are warmer and here everybody is so cold”.

21. Talk about the process involved in learning a language; make that process a conscious act– The process of becoming bilingual can be complicated. Talking with the children about this process can help them to develop tools which will enable them to be better equipped to deal with possible challenges.

22. Avoid using the home language only when disciplining a child– We have to establish a positive relationship with the home language. That is why it is not advisable to use the home language only to discipline children.

23. Try to maintain the family ties in the home country– Nowadays technology enables us to keep in touch with our families in the home country. Phone calls, letters, e-mails, and videos are powerful influences in children’s upbringing. Children and adolescents may exchange videos with family members living abroad telling stories or reading books.

24. Stay informed about your rights and the rights of your children– Immigrant families are going through a very difficult moment in the U.S. However, there are basic rights that apply to everybody, even undocumented immigrants. Find out about your rights.

25. Search for families in your community– Create informal groups with other families with children the same age to meet on a regular basis to exchange information and to organize activities together.

26. Have fun with your children– Try to keep the process of language acquisition as fun and natural as possible.

About the Authors: Regina Camargo and Eliana Elias are early childhood education consultants as well as parents who lead a community-based Portuguese club designed to maintain the Portuguese language in their community. If you would like additional information or would like to get into contact with Regina or Eliana, please send your inquiry to multilingualmania(at) and we will put you into contact with them.

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Raising Bilingual Children: Community-based Language Maintenance

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Regina Camargo March 15, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Thanks, Melanie! I hope you are feeling better.

Melissa March 15, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Wow! This is very comprehensive! Great authors!

Gina R. March 15, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I sometimes am guilty of the one that they talk about with not forcing your children to speak the target language. Sometimes I just want to pull my hair out because they only answer in English. I need to remind myself that if I punish them, I might be making it worse and making them more resistant to speaking Spanish.

Marie March 23, 2010 at 7:31 pm

You have some excellent ideas. I enjoyed reading the post.

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