The Choice of Language

By Jia Pu——the third post

A couple of days ago, I happened to watch a video on YouTube, which inspired me to say something about immigrants and their choice of languages. The video is actually a pretty short  interview of several second generation immigrants, whose parents speak broken English and suffered all kinds of difficulties due to their low proficiency. The link of this video is attached in the reference section so that anyone interested can have a look. It is touching and it reminds me of the language maintenance in immigrant families.

In fact, the issue of language maintenance has always been discussed and analyzed in sociolinguistic research. First generation immigrants, especially those who do not receive proper education, are usually slow when it comes to learning. Besides, many of them are busy surviving on arrival, which leaves them no time to acquire a new language. Also, most immigrants tend to live in a community consisting of people from the same country as they do, where they communicate with each other in their mother tongue and regard this language as part of their culture as well as identity. Owing to all these factors, first generation immigrants depend heavily on their heritage language. In comparison, the second generation speak the language of the new country most of the time because they have been exposed to the language and culture of the new country since they were born. Additionally, acquiring the language seems to be a necessity if they want to integrate into society. While their heritage language just acts as a medium for them to communicate with their parents or people in the same community. And that’s why “most immigrant families shift to the language(s) of their new country over two to four generations”. The shift is gradual but it seems inevitable.

So considering this situation, should immigrants maintain their mother tongue? How do immigrant families make decisions about that? A discussion from an article (Velázquez, 2013), provides an interesting perspective. The research focuses on the relation between mother’s social network and family language maintenance because previous studies have highlighted the role mothers play in intergenerational language transmission. Participants are five MexAm families from three US communities and belong to different social classes. “All are two-parent households with at least one child under 18 living at home. Parents are native speakers of Mexican or MexAm Spanish and interact exclusively or predominately in Spanish” (p. 190). Results suggest that families where children have a better command of Spanish are those in which the mother considers this language crucial for both their children’s identity and their future economic opportunities. Another factor that influence mother’s decision is the density of their networks with competent speakers of Spanish. Therefore, “the major challenge for maintenance will not be lack of exposure to Spanish, but relevance” (p. 200). Maybe there are many other aspects to think about this issue, but I find this one rather interesting since mothers do play a fundamental role with regard to family language planning, which is worth investigating.
I know some of you are from families where your parents speak language(s) other than English, so to what extent do you maintain your mother tongue and how do your family make the choice of language? I’m looking forward to hearing your stories.

Van Herk, Gerard (2012). What Is Sociolinguistics?. Hoboken: Wiley.

Velázquez, Isabel (2013). Mother’s Social Network and Family Language Maintenance, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 34:2, 189-202. DOI:10.1080/01434632.2012.720984

6 thoughts on “The Choice of Language”

  1. Samuel Marticotte: Jia! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue. It is indeed an intricate issue. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I am guessing that what brought you to reflect on this topic is that as a foreign student in Canada, you are wondering how you would yourself integrate in Canada and wondering what language would your children speak? I have thought about that too when I was living in Japan as an English teacher. I was wondering how it would be for me and my identity if I had children there. I thought that I lived in Japan, it would be inevitable for my children to speak Japanese, and that it would be possible for them to learn French through me, but they would most likely feel no attachment to the language.

    Personally, I think that immigrants should maintain their mother tongue and that the government should support the learning of heritage languages through various means. I believe it is important for individuals to understand where they come from, what is their heritage, and how that connects to their current reality. I believe most immigrants have this identity need, and thus, the host society, should recognize those needs. I find it inhumane to let people immigrate for economic reasons while denying them recognition of cultural, religious or identity needs. I know Western governments and populations are far from espousing such views. But I believe this is the direction we should take in the future!

    Thanks for sharing again!


  2. As far as I am concerned, maintaining one’s native language, especially among immigrants, is entirely up to the people concerned. Their way of life, their social network, their attachment to and pride of their original cultural, and ongoing linkage with home country shapes this significantly. Take the case of Arabs here in Montreal. From what I have seen; observed; and experienced, Lebanese Arabs pass their Arabic to their children and grand-children quite successfully relative to Moroccans, Algerians, or Tunisians. It is rare for a Lebanese to lose touch with his country of origin. Besides, the use of Arabic at home, in the vast majority of cases, is quite commonplace, and at times is a rule to follow. What’s more, media entertainment, such as music and TV channels, is mostly in Arabic. Therefore, it might not be surprising to see young Montreal-born-and-raised men and women, in their early twenties, speaking Lebanese dialect of Arabic as if they have just arrived from Lebanon. This is at the microlevel of language maintenance.

    At the macrolevel, maintaining native/heritage languages is a sensitive issue. Contrary to Samuel’s thought that governments should support the learning of heritage languages, heritage languages are viewed negatively. Maintaining heritage languages can bring about hosts of social, professional, and academic problems to the people concerned, among others. Therefore, support for heritage languages by governments is, I suppose, quite unlikely. Plus, if we assume for the sake of argument that a support is plausible, how many heritage language learning/maintenance would a support be granted to, especially in countries like Canada where there is a large number of heritage languages.

    Undoubtedly, maintaining one’s heritage language could be advantageous but not absolutely essential. Like Van Herk puts it, how tragic is it that a son or daughter of an immigrant does not speak their heritage language? They won’t lose a lot of sleep over it, he adds (pronominal changes, mine!). I utterly agree with Van Herk. It is probably better to fully acquire the culture and language of the new home rather than having the feeling of homesickness and being “an outsider” constantly.


  3. Hi Jia,

    I think it’s very important for immigrants to maintain their heritage language and pass it to their children. However, I think it is not that easy especially for the second generation and the following generations. I think it is even harder with changes in lifestyle and how incredibly busy people are worldwide, and especially in some developed countries which are emigrant destinations like Canada. My experience is an example illustrating how language maintenance is a challenging task for parents. I am not even an immigrant and I have been here in Canada for a short time. In fact, I am having difficulty maintaining my children’s first language even though I have strong reason to do so as we are going back to out home country and it is very important that my kids learn/maintain our L1. That being said, we struggle to maintain the children’s L1 at home and find that they are almost unable to speak their L1 to express themselves. I believe that this happened because my husband and I are so busy that we neglected to adequately encourage the language at home.


  4. Yu-Ting, Liu

    Hello Jia!

    Recently, I’ve been thinking about the same question as well after I made some ABC friends in my study abroad duration. It’s inevitable for immigrant families to face language shift. Not to mention those immigrants who moved to a new country, a new culture. Even in Taiwan we speak different languages and dialects between generations (as I mentioned in our presentation!). I think immigrant families don’t necessarily need to perfectly pass down their heritage language. To me, the most important thing is to pass down their own national/race identity. I personally think feeling attached to their origins is much more important for a second generation child speaking perfect heritage language.

    Also, as you said, the immigrant parents are busy with living. And it’s not easy to teach the kids a language that is not widely used in the new country. They have no proper learning environment to learn and to use the language. Unless they have many family members who are immigrants as well, or they live in a same culture community so the kids have high chances to be exposed to the language environment. After I come to Canada I realized it’s really not easy to live in a migrate country. For there are so many obstacles that I would never thought of for immigrants. Thank you for the post!


  5. Hello Jia

    I find the topic you brought is very sensitive and authentic as it reminds me of myself and my children here in canada.

    As a mum of two boys who born and raised in canada, it is sometime meaningless to them to use their L1 all the time. We always go back and forth and use code switching to at least maintain L1 alive. The fact that I am not immigrant and I will come back to my hometown one day makes it even more important to maintain the L1. However, considering the situation of immigrants, it is difficult to brought out such decision. In other words, losing L1 or the heritage language could affect many other life aspects like the heritage language identity, culture, and social life.

    I agree with Mansor that Lebanese have strong pride of their identity that motivate them to pass their heritage language even to third and forth generation in some cases. Due to this fact, they actually unlikely to experience negative impression regarding their heritage language. The reason behind such positive language maintenance is the strong and wide social network that Lebanese have after their huge immigration movement happened in the past years. Hence, the question will not be should we maintain the heritage language or not but how could we achieve this? and what are the sequences?


  6. Hi, Jia and other commenters!

    It is exciting to see a lively discussion. I would like to point out a couple of things.

    First off, I am a bit skeptical about the role mother’s social network plays in language maintenance as Velasquez claims because of the underlying ideas of the claim. Here, she made a couple of assumptions to make a such a claim: (1) mothers are the primary caregiver of the child, which is not always true (2) the mother and child relationship is universal, which is also not true. That is, in certain cultures, the intergenerational language transmission mainly occurs during mother and child interaction, but in other cultures where motherese is not a common phenomenon, the intergenerational language transmission occurs differently.

    Second, I believe that there is a certain role governments can play in heritage language maintenance. Like Mansour pointed out, any government will not adopt a policy that embraces all the heritage languages. However, governments can support heritage language by shifting educational policies. For instance, governments can change the currently dominant discourse related to heritage languages from as a source of problems to an under-utilized resource by adopting an inclusive multilingual classroom model.



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