Reflections on Multi-generational Language Loss
A guest post by fellow language lover and educator, Paloma Pacheco.
In the latest edition of the excellent Maisonneuve magazine, journalist Chantal Braganza has something pretty important to say about language. Educators, researchers, and lovers of words and their weight, listen up. In her article entitled “More Than Words,” Braganza tackles the delicate and oft-ignored issue of multi-generational language loss, or “attrition” as linguists call it: what happens when the children of immigrant parents are shoved into a public school system unequipped to deal with a multitude of home languages.
As an EAL teacher and passionate lover of language, I am endlessly fascinated by how different languages interact with one another, and the role that language plays in shaping culture and identity.
Like Braganza, I too was raised in a bi-cultural family, to two immigrant parents – one from Mexico, and one from the United States – and grew up in a household where language was both fluid and a point of contention. My father spoke to my brother and me entirely in Spanish until we entered kindergarten. Although my memory often fails me, like Braganza, I can also recall moments of accessing two languages as if they were one and the same – addressing my mother in English, and, in the next breath, responding to my father in Spanish.
Canada and Multilingualism
In 2011, 20.6% of the Canadian population – about 6.1 million people – reported having a non-official mother tongue. Over 20% reported speaking at least two languages at home. This is the diversity that Canada is often lauded for – the kind of diversity that should herald a tolerance of and interest in difference, and a respect for preserving and protecting these differences. However, as Braganza notes, while this linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated, these numbers don’t express what often happens to the children and grandchildren of that 20 percent.
Numerous studies have been conducted about the patterns of language loss in immigrant communities, showing time and again how often, by the second or third generation, mother languages have been lost – partially or even entirely.
Braganza tackles both the personal and the public aspects of this home language-loss and its ramifications in her essay. There’s the frustration, shame and confusion that come with growing up bi-culturally, but being unable to fully access the language – and thus, the culture – of one’s parents: avoidance of holiday phone calls with relatives, for fear of fumbling the words; burial of a second language in classroom settings, for fear of ostracism. And also the confusion on the side of parents: on the one hand, a deep pride and investment in instilling their culture and language in their children, and, on the other, a still not uncommon belief that by mixing languages in a child’s early years of development, they may run the risk of stunting the child’s ability to learn English at an appropriate pace and proficiency.
In a country as culturally and linguistically diverse as Canada, one might think that the education system would be built to accommodate and promote the development of home language learning both inside and outside the classroom. However, while multi-generational language loss can be attributed to many factors – parents’ choice, home setting, socialization outside the home, etc. – one undeniable factor is a systemic failure on the part of our country’s education system in supporting and promoting linguistic diversity (one need only take a look at the state of aboriginal language preservation on a national scale as an example).
Braganza traces the history of Canada’s attempts to incorporate diverse language awareness into early childhood education, and the barriers that have prevented various initiatives from taking hold. While French and English language programs have been in place in Canada since the Official Languages Act in 1969, attempts to incorporate a national heritage languages policy have failed time and again – for lack of political will, financial resources, or implementation strategies.
The result of this failure? Teachers are often left with very few resources at their disposal to deal with the ever-increasing number of students who speak or are exposed to a second language at home.
Towards a World of Possibility
Language is, and always will be, one of the most essential vehicles for culture. As a language educator I am constantly amazed by the possibilities of language – its nuances, moods and complexities – and delighted by the wealth of cultural diversity present in my classroom.
I have also felt the sting of language when it becomes a barrier: the frustration of not having the right expression, or wanting so deeply to connect to a culture that I cannot access in the way I would like, because I lack its words.
While my father stopped speaking to me in Spanish when I started school (he insists that my brother and I stopped answering him in Spanish, refused to use it), he didn’t fail to imbibe me with a deep love of and interest in my cultural and linguistic heritage. I have since been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to re-learn Spanish on my own, exploring my roots and deepening my appreciation for the infinite worlds that knowing another language opens up before us.
My question, Braganza’s question, and a question probably on the minds of many is: what would it look like to live in a country where a mother tongue is not lost, but instead encouraged to blossom? What would it look like for children, for educators, for parents, for our society as a whole?
As one researcher comments to Braganza: “a variety of languages means a variety of ways of seeing the world… it’s the best way of getting towards real understanding and real diversity.”
I can only imagine it would look pretty spectacular.
For anyone interested, I highly recommend giving “More Than Words” a read—either by accessing Maisonnueve online, or picking up a copy at your nearest purveyor of quality small print publications!