I used to have the assumption that every person raised in a bilingual family would become naturally bilingual. But that is not true. During all these years I have lived in the United States, the country of multiculturalism par excellence, I have come across many people whose parents and grandparents spoke to them in their native language. To my surprise, I only met some that can speak both languages (English and their families’ native language) perfectly. Most of them can only speak a few words and/or understand their native language!
Looking around for a study that could give me some insight into this phenomenon, I found one by the University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group (BSG). In their study, researchers recruited 25 babies in bilingual families and followed their progress until age 3. Over the years, they observed all the babies learning words and phrases in both English and Spanish, but by the age of 3 years, several of them had stopped using Spanish. They were not comfortable enough in the second language to answer their parents or the researchers in that language, much less initiate an interaction in Spanish themselves.
We know that children easily pick up the majority language, even if their parents cannot speak it. We know that children have an amazing ability to learn languages. Yet why is it that some children raised in bilingual families learn both languages, while others do not? What create these different outcomes? What are the key factors that help establish bilingualism in children?
Barbara Zurer Pearson, from the Department of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts published a study that seeks to answer these questions. She explained the phenomenon through five key factors: input, language status, access to literacy, family language use, and community support.
Input means the quantity of minority language that is available in the children’s entourage. It is obvious that the more input, the more learning, and consequently the more proficiency. If children feel comfortable using the language, they will invite more input so they will learn more and they will become more proficient. Attitudes of parents, siblings, and peers are very important to create input. If they share negative attitudes towards a language, they will be subtracting input, which will lead to less enthusiasm for using the language, attract less input, and decrease learning and proficiency. Therefore, if we, as parents, want to raise a bilingual child, we have to promote the minority language and facilitate its use around the child.
In general, children need a greater percentage of exposure to the minority language than in the majority language, and the reason is simple. We are immersed in the majority language. All our environment is in English; television, school, advertisements, friends, and just about everything else. Sometimes it’s even difficult to use the minority language in public with your child because you don’t want to show disrespect to the monolinguals involved in the conversation.
Further, the natural attraction of the majority language for the child is very powerful. According to the same study, it is more likely that bilingual children sharing the same minority language will speak English or the majority language between themselves in private unregulated conversations. For instance, one of my colleagues of work has two girls of 4 and 7 years old. When they are in class, they speak Spanish. However, English is their language of preference when they are playing in the school’s playground.
Written materials in a language, whether in children’s literature or mass media, can extend input even in the absence of many language speakers. For slightly older children, reading is an important consolidator of their language skills, and contributes to both greater proficiency and retention of a language. In fact, reading skills transfer from one language to another and according to “Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children” (LLBC; Cobo-Lewis, Eilers, Pearson, & Umbel, 2002), children who learned to read in both English and Spanish scored significantly higher in reading in English as well as Spanish.
It is essential that the family provides enough minority language interaction to support learning it. In fact, there is a theory called “the three-generation rules” that suggests that the first generation (typically emigrants who came to United States) are somewhat bilingual, but they remain strongly dominant in their native language. Their children, the second generation, are fluently bilingual, and their grandchildren, the third generation, will be monolingual in the majority language and will only speak and understand a few words in the heritage language.
It is crucial to have contact with monolingual speakers of the minority language. In families where both parents speak the minority language at home, and especially if their ability to speak English is limited, it will almost always be sufficient interaction in that language to support minority language learning. These are these cases where the children act as “interpreters” of their parents. It is not uncommon to see a woman in a store and asking her child to interpreter between her and the shop clerk.
However, with only one speaker of the minority language, or two fluently bilingual parents, the language environment of the home is more uncertain, and is less likely, on its own, to provide a bilingual learner with enough input.
A connected and united community of minority language speakers can really motivate our children to use that language. We can see many of these communities throughout United States: the Hispanic enclaves in Florida, Japantown in San Francisco or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, the Polish and Czech communities of South Broadway (Cleveland), Chinatown in New York City…we all know of that part of the city or area where there is a predominance of emigrants from a specific part of the world. It is not uncommon to find people living in those areas who have never had the need to speak English because these communities provide minority language speakers with an economy and services where they can interact and live using their native language. Children living in these enclaves are exposed to the majority language at school but are otherwise immersed in the minority language.
However, there are some areas of the country populated predominantly with American born individuals which still attract foreigners. Those newcomers normally get integrated easier into the American society but they find it very difficult to pass on their cultural and language heritage to their children due to the lack of community exposure. Yet, they can still create a social community in order to stablish a context to maintain the minority language and culture. A key element of community support provided to a minority language is through education. We should have dual language education programs available to make sure that our children are learning both languages at an academic level.
The study conducted among the Latin community in Miami found that despite their economic and political power, these communities have almost no schools that offer bilingual programs. Furthermore, it concludes that Spanish is being lost in Miami even faster than the three-generation rule would predict, mainly because the community does not seem to recognize the level of threat to the minority language. Every indication points out that children learn the minority language when parents make a conscious effort to expose the language to them. However, if parents don’t make the effort, the majority language will take over. In other words, while children have a unique natural ability to learn multiple languages, the process is not magic; it takes time, repetition, and focus to nurture bilingualism in children.
The full study can be found in the following link: http://www.umass.edu/aae/Pearson_social_circumstances_APPsycholing2007.pdf