Guest Post: Why Should Parents Talk to Their Children in Their Native Language?

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Laura Sanders Therapy, Ann Arbor, MichiganToday I have the pleasure of bringing you a guest post by a colleague and trilingual speech language pathologist Ana Paula G. Mumy, who talks about a topic very close to my heart: the importance of preserving native language in the home. Without further ado, please read what she has to say below. 

As a speech-language pathologist and as a multilingual mother of bilingual children, I am finding myself shocked and confused at the number of parents I run into who have chosen not to speak their native language to their children for various reasons or who have been persuaded to believe that speaking their native language to their children will hurt them socially or academically if the primary language of the community is different.

There are so many great articles and literature (based on good research) available on the topic of bilingualism and its benefits, even for children who may be experiencing language delays, that it seems redundant to write on the issue, but I feel compelled to do so because the passing down of a parent’s native language appears to be diminishing more and more.

So why should parents talk to their children in their native language?

The first and simplest reason is because that is the language in which they are likely to be most dominant or proficient, which in turn is the language in which they are able to provide quality language input as well as support effectively and consistently.  Even if a parent is able to pick up the language of the community, that parent’s vocabulary, grammar skills, and ease of communication will probably remain stronger in the native language.  I’ve often heard of recommendations from professionals and educators for parents to stop speaking the native language so that confusion is not created, so that language delays won’t occur, so that children can do well in school, but the research literature says the exact opposite!

The other occurrence that appears to be more prevalent is for the native language to be spoken from birth to preschool with a sudden shift to the community language once the child enters early intervention programs or school.  The problem with this is that the very foundation of language (which was formed through the native language) is being pulled out from under the child in order to promote a new language.  The research shows that children with strong first language skills are more ready and able to learn a second language.  In other words, it’s difficult to build a second language if the first language foundation is not established and supported WHILE the second language is being learned.  To put a halt on the native language will only hurt the child’s language growth, and long-term negative effects will be inevitable.

I’ve said this before, but I reiterate that children must be able to function/communicate effectively in their homes before they can function/communicate out in the community, so the native language cannot be stripped away, even for children with language delays.  So if you are a bilingual parent reading this, or a professional or educator guiding bilingual parents, here are some tips for bilingual parents of school-age children.

You can still help with homework, projects, or assignments that are in the community language.  You can read the assignment’s text or the given passages in the community language.  Just be sure that all of the verbal interaction around that homework or reading activity remains in the native language.  In other words, give the instructions in the native language.  Give explanations or clarify questions in the native language.  Discuss passages and their meaning in the native language.  Code switching, or the alternating between two languages, is a normal part of communication in bilingual individuals, and it does not promote or show signs of confusion.  It’s perfectly acceptable and appropriate for bilinguals.

And in everyday conversation and family routines, during family outings and celebrations, speak your native language!!!  Children need to hear quantity and quality language input in order to have strong language skills, and parents are the primary individuals who can provide the language input needed in the native language.

Professionals, educators, and parents should be working together so that the native language is flourishing at home!

(This post originally appeared on The Speech Stop) 

Ana Paula G. Mumy

Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP, is a multilingual speech-language pathologist and the author of various continuing education courses, leveled storybooks, and instructional therapy materials for speech/language intervention.  She has provided school-based services, home health care, and private services for more than 12 years and thoroughly enjoys providing resources for SLPs, educators, and parents on her website The Speech Stop.

9 Responses to “Guest Post: Why Should Parents Talk to Their Children in Their Native Language?”

  1. aglow February 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    An additional argument for parents’ using their native language is its influence on family dynamics. Research has shown that adults speaking their primary language are more likely to be perceived as competent, intelligent and worthy of respect by their children than otherwise.

    • telleseff February 8, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      That’s a very good point and I think that the readers would love to further read up on it. Would you be able to post links to references/resources on the above?

    • nativelanguagesupporter February 10, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      That’s truly right, aglow.

  2. nativelanguagesupporter February 10, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    I am a proud father of three wonderful children (13, 7 and 4 years old) and a Bilingual Speech Therapist, and I agree with you 100%. My children are 100% bilingual and they speak both languages perfectly. There is an unbreakable rule at home since forever: “SPEAK SPANISH”. I have noticed that my children frequently attempt speaking English while playing, which is normal considering the fact that they always play with their peers at school and neighborhood. Therefore, YOU MUST PLAY WITH THEM IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE with complete sentences. I also recommend WATCHING CARTOONS, MOVIES AND READING BOOKS TO THEM IN YOUR (THEIR) NATIVE LANGUAGE (DO NOT FORGET TO LIMIT THEIR SCREEN TIME TO PROMOTE PLAY AND COMMUNICATION). Also, TRY SHARING BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND DINNER WITH THEM WHILE TALKING. With seven years of experience working for the Early Intervention Program of Nassau and Suffolk County (New York State) providing Speech Therapist to bilingual children, I have found it extremely difficult to convince many parents about the importance of speaking their native language to their children. They just need more trustable and easy-to-understand information. Thank you for writing this article.

  3. apmumy February 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    If you have parents who need more practical guidance, please refer them to “Tips for Parents Raising Bilingual Children: When the Home Language Differs from the Community Language” – available at http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism. Both of these articles will be posted in Spanish very soon.

  4. natalieslp1 February 15, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    Ana and Tatyana thank you for sharing this great article.

    I couldn’t agree more on all of what you had to say. I work in a special ed preschool in Brooklyn and also service 0- 3 bilingual (Russian) population. I often find that what I recommend to my families at the school (we work with bi and tri-lingual Spanish, Bengali, and now Russian families) differs from what some of our teachers recommend in terms of language development and use.

    This is especially evident during parent- teacher meetings when the parents come in begging (this is not difficult to infer even with an interpreter that is sometimes needed) for “tips” and “strategies” to help with English. We get many children who are sequential bilinguals starting out at our all English preschool at the age of 3. I see that most of these children go through a 4- 6 month silent period (well described in Paradis and Genesee “Dual language development and Disorders) when everyone thinks it’s selective mutism, Autism, or Apraxia of speech topped with social- emotional issues that warrant counseling. It’s during this time that many of the educators insist that parents speak to their child in English only as to help the already confused 3 year old to “catch up”. Many of these parents are beautifully eloquent in their native language and not so eloquent in English. The consequence is despair and a poor attempt at “switching” the child to English because he/ she must speak it in school. Now.

    I spend a lot of time explaining, in my slightly accented English (I’m Russian/ Ukrainian born) that Spanish, Bengali, Russian, or whatever other language they speak in the home should continue to be that “in the home” language. Literature never suggested create substructive bilingualism environment for our bilinguals, not even if they are truly delayed or disordered (though in case of CAS this could be argued sometimes). This upsets me beyond belief as this sort of influence and false propaganda only further complicates not remediates the language delay/ disorder.

    Slps must be committed to educating other staff about our bilingual or trilingual students. This isn’t about just preserving the heritage language and culture. This is about ethical and evidence- based practice. This is about making our children less not more delayed.

    Natalie Romanchukevich
    Bilingual Speech- Language Pathologist

  5. apmumy February 21, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    Great feedback, Natalie! I’m finding myself more and more having to “convince” bilingual parents that my recommendations are informed and evidence-based, it’s disheartening to see how much bad advice is prominent. I just recently wrote an article you might check out entitled “Losing Language: The Subtle Epidemic” available here – http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism. This one and 2 other popular titles relating to bilingualism are now available in Spanish and Portuguese as well. Tatyana or Natalie, either of you interested in translating these to Russian? 🙂

    • telleseff February 21, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Ana,
      I’d love to but I have too much on my plate at the moment
      but I’ll email Natalie and ask her
      Tatyana

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