Methods for maintaining children's culture and language
December 22, 2014 12:28 AM   Subscribe

How do families maintain cultural heritage and language when living in other cultures AND the parents are the exclusive transmitters of home country culture (I.e. there are no nearby communities and infrastructure for language lessons, cultural activities and groups)?

I know some people have grandparents come and live with them or hire an au pair or nanny to increase language and culture exposure. And yes books and videos in the home country language are obvious. What I'm looking for are true strategies by people that have lived like this. I'm also interested in what people do when only one parent is from that culture/speaks that language.
posted by k8t to Education (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Grandparents and cousins on Skype. Sorry I don't have other suggestions, but we haven't thought of anything else so far. I'll be watching this thread with interest!
posted by gakiko at 1:05 AM on December 22, 2014

Well, I don't think you can expect to "maintain" it, exactly. I think no matter what you do, you'll wind up with a super-mini hybrid culture, if I can safely extrapolate from my experience as a second-generation kid and that of friends who grew up the same way. (That is, among few other families from our respective ethnic groups, in a mostly homogenous dominant culture.)

I just think it's very hard to do what you want without infrastructural support or involvement with extended family/community. Your child will likely be most interested in putting time and effort into negotiating her/his day-to-day reality at school and with friends, because those are more motivationally salient and tangible. Artificial or extraordinary attempts to replicate "culture" at home are probably going to feel like homework. So, the more exposure and immersion through visits to the home country or with family, the better, for what you want, imo.

But, you speak the language at home, and try to avoid drifting into the language that your child will be speaking at school and with friends. (What often winds up happening is the kids speak the version of the language the parent/s speak - i.e. it may be "frozen" at English circa 2014 - and most of the vocabulary is likely to revolve around domestic life: food, relationships, that kind of thing. Colourful idioms/sayings might stick, even if they're not perfectly understood. Humour probably won't survive the transmission.)

The aspects of heritage that are usually most easily maintained (according to my observations anyway) are, again, food - because it's immediately apprehensible, doesn't require a lot of context to "get" - and the celebration of a few focal holidays. And values and religious beliefs, I suppose, if you are religious (practices maybe less so).

I wouldn't try to push books or films unless there's an interest, but your child will probably enjoy sharing time with with you if you're reading to them, or watching along with them.

It sucks and I'm sorry, but I think you might have to be prepared to accept some loss, and a bit of a cultural gap between you and your child.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:22 AM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was one of these kids. Granted, we moved back to the homeland for a four year stint at one point, but most of my life we have lived outside the homeland.
1) The kids language will reflect the parents. My wordchoice and language definitely reflected my parents for a long time. Now, whenever I engage with the homeland, I make mental notes of recent trends in the language.
Also, my parents exclusively speak to me in our homeland language. Their English definitely sounds like immigrant English, and speaking in our homeland language is key.
2) Internet radio. Seriously. Talk radio can be amazing. My mom always had the radio playing in the background, and we usually had a homeland station. It gave an insight into culture, music, and current events.
3) Celebrate all the traditions. As a kid, I loved these traditions. My brother didn't care, so ymmv.
4) Workbooks and such in homeland language. We were able to get some great early childhood learning books (my homeland alphabet is slightly different that the English one), and we would sometimes have practice time to do with it.)
5) We are a big baking family, and we have tons of cook books from the homeland. I have probably made some of those cakes hundreds of times, but it also got me reading and understanding.
6) Kids books! We have lots of kids books from the homeland. And they are amazing. As a kid, there was never any "Hungry Caterpillar" for me: all the stories were from the homeland. And if my parents read outloud, I was encouraged to try to read with them. (Granted, we come from a country known for its kids books)
7) Talk about homeland values and traditions. Talk about news in the homeland. You are your child's window into this life: help give them context of their heritage.

All in all, I agree with cotton dress sock that you will end up with a hybrid child. And your child will likely have some back and forth about how they identify. What you can give them is the tools and the option to understand your homeland. hybrid. The outcomes will vary.
posted by troytroy at 2:31 AM on December 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was one of those kids. My parents tried everything, and it didn't "stick." In fact, their efforts to push it on us backfired spectacularly and most of my siblings pushed back hard and don't speak the language at all now. I'm retrospect what I think would have worked was having a grandparent there from the beginning and showing us why it mattered. Instead, it became yet another point of contention in an overall rocky childhood.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:22 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband is Tibetan married to me, an unmitigated Australian, living in Australia with our two kids. His family are refugees living (mostly) in India with no chance of coming to Australia to visit or live. (We have a dreadful government.)

We've tackled this as a multi pronged thing:
1) MrTaff speaks only Tibetan to our children. At all times. He did from when they were in utero. He speaks to me in English, and I answer him in English, but he won't accept English from our kids.

2) We restricted English language movies and TV early on. Tibetan media is incredibly rare in Australia, and the stuff you can get is incredibly sinofied. So they had no tv in the beginning, then it was animated stuff with little to no English, now it's movies once or twice a week and peppa pig on YouTube when our littlest grabs the iPad.

3) YouTube there is every language's nursery rhymes and music on youtube. Use it.

4) While the Tibetan community is tiny in Australia, there were three or four families with mixed or wholly tibetan kids so we started a language school in our kitchen. We now have local government support, a community hall and a tiny budget. Parents teach and there are lots of resources online for this. (If you went down this track, let's talk in detail. Email me.)

5) take them home to visit the country/language and spend a decent amount of time there if possible. (Buy language books when you're there.) Which leads to...

6) Ring/Skype grandma (Aunty/grandpa/cousin) when you get home from the visit to keep the interest in communicating in a shared language

7) Have a supportive spouse. We are invaluable. I'll prioritise language and cultural enhancement in the family diary over almost everything else.

8) Relax. Do your best now, later on they'll pick it all up easily enough when they want to.

9) Email Taff (that's me!) with questions.

10) Yay you, language!
posted by taff at 5:36 AM on December 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Always speak your home language at home. Your kids may be slow with English but they'll learn fast (my folks stopped speaking my native language and we 100% forgot within 6 months)
posted by sandmanwv at 7:15 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Based on personal anecdotes with friends and family, the priority is making the culture/language learning feel natural and rewarding rather than forced. This is obviously much easier with a community. If the kids have fun talking to relatives on Skype, cooking with grandma's recipes, and learning old jokes, they will embrace the culture and language; if they feel forced to speak it or to follow traditions "just because", they will tend to think of them as pointless homework or worse, censorship, and will grow to shun them.

I know it's a different stage of development, but which foreign language teachers in high school did you prefer, the ones that took you on field trips to museums and restaurants and showed you culturally significant movies followed by discussion, or the ones that read drills verbatim out of a textbook while you struggled to stay awake? Exactly.

You also have to accept the existence of popular culture in the adopted homeland, so make the learning engaging in its own right rather than thinking of it as a zero-sum game.
posted by Seeking Direction at 9:02 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was also one of these kids, and the constant pressure to carry on my parents' culture and values (which are very at odds with American culture) has been a constant source of resentment that I've come to terms with only recently. I feel no responsibility to carry on a culture that has been extinguished in its own habitat and which I never lived in myself.

I enjoyed participating in the food, the language, and the holidays, but be extremely careful about forcing cultural etiquette and other expectations on children who have nobody similar around them. It won't stick, and it'll drive them crazy. I think as long as you continue to live the other aspects of the culture yourself and make it appealing, your kids will see it as a positive thing and seek it out themselves. That happened for me with regards to their language- we never spoke English at home and I sought out further education in the language on my own because I really appreciated it as a skill. Language software and other media are fantastic resources- did you know Harry Potter has been translated into basically every conceivable language? It's a good way to get kids to practice.

Anyway, I think a more realistic goal is to accept that your kids are not going to be part of your culture. They're going to be multicultural, and if you can find a way to syncretize the two cultures it will be much more harmonious than forcing it down their throats.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:04 AM on December 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh- and even if there are no people in your cultural community, you should probably become friendly with other multicultural people. Though the details are going to be different, your kids will appreciate having other people who can relate to being a little bit different. To this day all my best friends are the children of other immigrants from a variety of cultures because they all understand the identity issues and frustrations of being multicultural in America.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:08 AM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

BuddhaInABucket's suggestion about finding other multiculturals is a great one: I enjoyed my own heritage more when I started interacting with other third culture kids.

It may be worth reading about "Third Culture Kids" - its the slightly cringeworthy term given to kids who grow up outside of their parent's home culture.
posted by troytroy at 3:16 PM on December 22, 2014

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