How to encourage children to use a minority language?
October 14, 2018 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any tips, tools, or strategies for changing a child’s attitude to a minority language?

I speak a minority and declining language. It is still spoken in some places, but I live in an area that is dominated by the majority language. I have spoken the minority language to my eight-year-old daughter since she was born, and she understands it reasonably well but does not speak it. My partner is supportive but does not speak the minority language either. The minority language has some official status, so she does encounter it in school but otherwise she rarely hears it. She has become very resistant to, and frustrated by, my use of it, particularly as she is not developing sufficient vocabulary or understanding to follow more complex sentences. I don’t want to stop speaking it to her, as I want to see the language continue.
posted by Grinder to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I realise you’ve deliberately not given us the language and region you are in but I think knowing the language and your context is going to help. Does the language for example connect to a sense of ethnic otherness that your child might now be encountering, etc. If for example you were talking about the Irish language in Ireland there would be different responses to if you are taking about the Irish language in the UK or Mexico. If the language is just rare where you are but there are places where it thrives or is a natural first language gays also going to give different answers.
posted by Iteki at 8:11 AM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't have personal experience with this, but it seems to me the best way to encourage the language is to find other kids -- ANY kids -- who will speak it with her as well. Kids are remarkably peer-drivenl I speak the same language as my kids, but they have completely different accents and vocabulary based entirely on their friends' accents/language, and it's been that way since they were 2. Nothing I could do or tell them would make them change. Different situation obviously, but I think it may still apply!

Anecdata, but I have a friend whose mother spoke a somewhat obscure language and she got her to speak it more by making it their "secret" language, and designating very specific times to speak it (i.e., in the car, etc.) She said it made her feel like a "spy." :)
posted by heavenknows at 8:11 AM on October 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's not enough to have one person speak the language to her. If you can't find a XX KIDS' LANGUAGE AND CULTURE CLASS maybe you can start an online one?
posted by nantucket at 8:23 AM on October 14, 2018

This seems to happen with lots of people. If there is a class for kids, that is the easiest solution.
Otherwise finding fun media... Popular books or shows in the language can help.

But to another point, heritage speakers (like your daughter) will not develop more sophiscated vocabulary as a rule. Without going to school in the language, heritage speakers become stunted. It isn't that this cannot be overcome with work, but without effort, this is reality.
posted by k8t at 8:33 AM on October 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

she understands it reasonably well but does not speak it

There is a family near our dog cafe who come nearly every weekend who trained their dogs in Irish as a tactic to get their children to speak Irish. One of the dogs is Irish speaking only -- if you say "Púca, sit" she won't but if you say "Púca, suigh" she will -- and the other has picked up a reasonable amount of English on his own. Anyway, it was a very successful tactic for their kids, and everyone speaks to the dogs in Irish only and one of the children as well as the mum are fluent.

Anyway, I don't know if that's a possibility for your family but I am a fan of this story so I thought I would share it!
posted by DarlingBri at 8:34 AM on October 14, 2018 [23 favorites]

There's a family at our school that speaks a minority language. The mom speaks with the kids exclusively in her language (like your family, her partner does not speak the minority language). She does take them to cultural classes on Saturdays, but another way that she reinforces it is by showing the kids cartoons and other programs in her language. Basically she tries to create an immersive environment at home and through gatherings with other native speakers as often as possible.
posted by vignettist at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that she needs to have a real reason to speak and understand it, something she can't get by using the majority language. She will know that you can speak majority language, so that will contribute to her frustration - you are making life more difficult on purpose (not that that's wrong). Do you have any cartoons, films or other media in the minority language that would interest her? That could give her a reason to engage. Do you know anyone who is monolingual in the minority language? Can you take her to places where the minority language is more widely spoken? Are there other families nearby in your position?

I think it does depend on which languages you are talking about - for example if the minority language was Welsh and you lived in England I'd be encouraging you to watch S4C and BBC Cymraeg and to spend time in Welsh-speaking parts of Wales in a way that she can see and hear you interacting with other Welsh speakers. I'd also be suggesting you look at the support given to bilingual familes in Wales as there's a real push to encourage parents to use Welsh with their children when only one parent speaks Welsh. But it is not very far to from England to Wales, and they share the same majority language. The same may not be true of your location. Or perhaps the minority language does not have the same support.
posted by plonkee at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

My experience doing fieldwork in a minority language region was that the kids who became actively bilingual were the ones who had an elderly relative at home who was monolingual in the minority language. If there's someone you really want to talk to who only speaks X, you'll go out on a limb and try speaking X even if you're more comfortable in Y. If you only ever need to speak Y to be understood — if you know the people who try speaking X to you all actually understand Y too — you'll probably play it safe and stick to Y.

But language attitudes probably also matter a lot. In the community I worked in, the minority language was still seen as a "real" language, and as good and important and poetic and suitable for noble occasions, even by people who no longer spoke it. I imagine if the dominant attitude had been "This is ugly gobbledygook spoken by hicks," kids might have been more reluctant to speak it even with their own grandparents or great-grandparents.

So, depending on your family and on your daughter's friends' attitudes, you might have an uphill fight ahead of you. But I wonder if anyone's still monolingual in your language, and if you might be able to arrange for her to have some sort of fun or positive experience with some of those people.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:46 AM on October 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Also, FWIW, a language that has young passive speakers — which is what linguists call someone who can understand but not speak a language — is farther from death than a language that has no young speakers at all.

If your daughter ends up a passive speaker, she'll still be able to understand songs and stories and letters from older people in the community. She'll still be able to help older people by translating the things they want to say. She'll still be able to pass vocabulary on to her kids — she might not be able to put a whole sentence together, but she'll still know what things are called. If more people get interested in reviving the language later on, she'll still be able to help with that.

So even if it becomes obvious that she'll only ever be a passive speaker, you don't have to give up and you don't have to feel like you've failed. By making her a strong passive speaker, you'll still have done something to keep the language alive.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:14 AM on October 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: We live in Canada. My kids were born in Japan. My wife is Japanese. I sometimes work as a J>E translator, so I speak and read the language.

Our home language is Japanese, and our sons speak, read and write Japanese well enough that they can attend school in Japan with no problem at all. It's actually kind of a problem here in Canada, since our youngest son has to attend ESL class to improve his English.

I think a key to encouraging your child to speak your target language is to encourage your husband to speak it, too. We're pretty lucky in that we have access to all sorts of Japanese media, including books, comic books, TV shows, movies and pop music, but, at the end of the day, if I didn't speak Japanese, my kids probably would not either.

I've noticed this with other Japanese-Canadian families, where one parent, typically the father, doesn't speak Japanese, and has no particular interest in learning it.

The kids grow up into teens and young adults who don't really speak Japanese.

So getting both parents on board is important.
posted by JamesBay at 10:22 AM on October 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

In case it might help, this American Girl movie is aimed right at your daughter's age group and is about exactly this conflict--10-year-old Julie doesn't want to go to Chinese school or learn Chinese but wants to just practice gymnastics instead.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:39 AM on October 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is partner willing to learn (at least some of) the minority language? I've had several friends who have been successful with what you want to do, but in all cases both parents spoke the minority language.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:51 PM on October 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

A couple I know with 2 kids did this successfully because both parents were fluent in a (really difficult) minority European language. The father speaks only this language to his sons, and will only respond to them if addressed in this language. The kids' mother does understand it, so she is not left out, but she speaks only English with the kids, so they are actually, at 6 and 8, fluent in both languages. It was very important to the father than his kids know his native language, and speak with his parents and less English-fluent relatives who still live in this European country. Also because such a difficult language would be very difficult to learn as an adult, and with dual citizenship the kids might want to take advantage of their EU citizenship as adults. The language in question is Dutch.
posted by citygirl at 1:54 PM on October 14, 2018

Mr. Ant is French Canadian. Both his parents speak French as their primary language, but when Mr. Ant was a mere larva his parents decided to raise him bilingually. When Mr. Ant was speaking to his mother, they used French. When he was speaking to his father, they used English. Even now I know which parent he's talking to on the phone - French is Rita and English is Henri.

As an adult, he is orally fluent in both French (Canadian variant) and English (he beats me frequently at Scrabble, which is humbling.) Mr. Ant's sister married an English Canadian but raised her daughters bilingually too, and one of them, our beautiful niece Charlotte, now lives and works in Paris.

Mr. Ant's written French is OK but not great, though, so maybe you should work on that with your sprout.

Edit: French is not a threatened language but it's definitely a minority language in Canada. This is how one family has decided to keep it alive.
posted by workerant at 7:47 PM on October 14, 2018

Best answer: Please forgive me if this is out of place, but I feel it is important to mention. I am now a passive speaker of a minority language, and when me and my sister were growing up our father tried very hard to maintain a "You will only speak to me in the minority language" rule. Unfortunately this backfired spectacularly. There were a lot of other ongoing family issues, but ultimately to us kids it felt like communication with one of our parents was made arbitrarily difficult. If we didn't speak this minority language with him then he wouldn't ask us about our day, wouldn't engage with what we learned in our majority-language school, etc.

You are not my parents, I fully trust that you and your partner are thoughtful and supportive when it comes to your children, but please be aware that there is a very real chance this one approach (out of many!) may have undesirable fallout.

Our parents also enrolled us at a minority center with language classes every weekend, and this helped the most with proficiency. However once those classes ended (past a certain grade level) and we had no reasons to maintain the language on an ongoing basis, this proficiency steadily declined - hence the current passive state.

Overall I think finding entertaining ways to keep the minority language useful is the best start, beyond lessons outside the home.
posted by erratic meatsack at 11:34 PM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

For slightly (but not too) academic takes on related issues, see Language on the Move, which has a few recent articles that look relevant.
posted by squishles at 7:30 AM on October 15, 2018

Is there any place you all can go and spend some time where the minority language is spoken exclusively? Or where it's the dominant language? What you are describing -- the kid understands but doesn't speak the minority language -- is pretty much what I've observed in first generation kids who were my peers growing up and now the children of my friends. The only way I've seen to get kids actually using that language is when they're with their grandparents who don't speak the dominant language. I also know some of these first gen kids who go back and learn it as adults.

I wouldn't stop speaking it to her. I wouldn't make her speak it to you, but I would keep speaking to her in your language.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:56 AM on October 15, 2018

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