by Karen N. Nemeth
Celebrate World Mother Language Day on February 21, 2014 by Sharing the 4 Pillars of Support for Home Language: Brain, Identity, Family and Social Skills Development
Over the past year, we’ve shared several major research reports that confirm the importance of supporting each child’s home language, or “mother language”. I make this case for home language support in my presentations and you can use it in your professional development, too. Download our poster here.
Why do we need to support each child’s home language while also helping them learn English?
1. Being bilingual builds brain power.
Studies like the ones summarized in this New York Times article “Why Bilinguals are Smarter” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee have given us all the talking points about the cognitive advantages of learning in two languages. Bilinguals have better working memory, better ability to focus on changing tasks, better metalinguistic ability, and the may even be protected from the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease later in life. Will these cognitive benefits help young dual language learners have greater success in school? Of course! So that’s one reason to support the continuing growth of each child’s home language.
2. Home language is part of our identity.
As adults, we view a language as a course to be studied. For young children, however, the home language is simply part of who they are. It is part of their identity and it is the source of love, communication and survival that shows them where they fit in in the world. In a child’s first days at child care or preschool – possibly the first time they have been away from family – and imagine what it is like to be in a place that doesn’t have a trace of that home language. What must happen to a child’s self-esteem when his own language seems unimportant, disrespected, or even ridiculed in his first school experience? When a program is filled with materials, songs, games and talking in some languages, but not THAT child’s language, how is he going to feel about his worth in that environment? On the other hand, when a child enters a program where teachers are interested in his language, and there are conversations, labels and books to support it, what a lasting difference that can make in his self-esteem. Is self-esteem going to have an impact on a child’s greater success in school? Of course! So that’s another reason to support each child’s home language.
3. Home language strengthens families.
We need families to understand that the richness of vocabulary and the great love they can express in their home language will help their children learn important concepts that will actually help the do better in English. There is no academic reason for families to give up their home language. On the contrary, maintaining the home language strengthens the family bonds and allows for those deep discussions, family stories, and advice that are so important to family life and to a growing child. Schools need to demonstrate the value of every family’s home language and culture. Language Castle LLC offers letters that can be given to parents to highlight the importance of maintaining the home language. Is family strength going to have any influence on the child’s greater success in school? Of course! So that’s the third reason to support each child’s home language at home and at school.
“When parents are unable to talk to their children, they cannot easily convey to them their values, beliefs, understandings or wisdom about how to cope with their experiences. They cannot teach them about the meaning of work, or about personal responsibility, or what it means to be a moral or ethical person in a world with too many choices and too few guideposts to follow. What is lost are the bits of advice, the consejos parents should be able to offer children in their everyday interactions with them. Talk is a crucial link between parents and their children: It is how parents impart their cultures to their children and enable them to become the kind of men and women they want them to be. When parents lose the means for socializing and influencing their children, rifts develop and families lose the intimacy that comes from shared beliefs and understandings.” Lilly Wong Fillmore (1991) When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 6, pp 323-346
4. Diversity is good for all.
When schools show explicit support for every child’s home language and culture, they are creating a setting that models respect for diversity. This is important for children who are DLLs, but it is also important that all children learn to have positive social interactions with their peers from all languages and cultures. As diversity is increasing rapidly among the youngest part of our population, tolerating and honoring diversity will become ever more important to the overall effectiveness of our schools. Do positive social interactions make a difference in how well children do in school? Of course! And that is the fourth pillar, the fourth reason to support every child’s home language.
Celebrate World Mother Language Day on February 21, 2014 not as an event but as a beginning.