Promoting Equity for Young Multilingual Children and Their Families

Promoting Equity for Young Multilingual Children and Their Families

In the 2000s, awareness of and support for bilingualism grew rapidly throughout the world. Nowadays, counseling centers, kindergartens, and schools have learned to support children from multilingual families in different ways, for example, by providing resources such as Korean tutors online if it is not possible to travel to in-person classes. Such support measures include assistance in learning the language of the country and in mastering a second native language, transfer of information, and support in raising a bilingual child.

However, most of this work is still the responsibility of the parents and depends on internal relationships in the family and the position of the family itself. It is quite obvious that in a family in which parents have different origins (different countries, cultures, languages), it is necessary to agree more than usual on a common manner of behavior, and rules of the game, and also combine different cultures. This requires understanding and acceptance, and it would be good to discuss all these things and make a decision before the baby is born.

Multilingualism: problem, right, or resource?

On a theoretical level, we can say that multilingualism is a huge wealth and resource for a child, and hardly anyone nowadays questions this idea. In the modern world, no one now questions the knowledge and use of one’s native language; on the contrary, both the constitution and the equality law in many countries emphasize this right. But at the everyday level, for sure, every multicultural family has faced various difficulties, problems, or questions about what to do in different situations or how to support the child.

One of the problems even before the birth of children may be that one of the spouses does not value the language or culture of the other spouse. This is not a very fruitful platform for supporting a child's multilingualism. On the other hand, it can also lead to larger issues, such as whether children will respect their parents, their background, and their other relatives. 

Therefore, it would be good to study each other’s culture and get acquainted with the language, and even if you don’t master the spouse’s language yourself (if the family does not live in the spouse’s homeland), then at least learn something from the other’s language, perhaps by going through some kind of initial language course.

The choice of languages and what affects it

When children are born into a family, the issue of language becomes relevant. The language choice is also influenced by the language the parents communicate with each other: is it some kind of third language (at first, often English) or the language of one of the parents?

A family's language choice may be influenced by:

  • Solidarity towards the language and culture of the other spouse;
  • place of residence, in whose country they live;
  • language prestige (whose language has a higher status);
  • work situation or family relationships.

Still, the choice of language is a decision based mostly on feelings rather than reason. According to research, it is generally said that the choice of the common language for a married couple falls on the husband's language if all the above-mentioned points are equal. But, on the other hand, it has been found that mothers, as a rule, are better at transmitting their native language to their children.

If a family has no respect for the culture and language of the other parent, this directly affects the choice of the children, and they also do not want to learn the native language of this parent. At first, the most important thing is the attitude towards language within the family, but at school age society and schoolmates also begin to have an influence. However, if the family has a strong foundation for both languages and cultures in infancy, an external disapproving attitude cannot completely shake the foundations laid in childhood.

Recommendations for avoiding problems

The general recommendation is that each parent speak his or her language to the child. This is important advice especially when the child is still small. Later, when children are more conscious of language and have sufficiently mastered both languages (or more), the family can switch to communicating in several languages at once – everyone uses the languages that the family knows together. This custom is called code-switching.

The foundation of one’s own identity, habits, and culture of language use is laid in preschool age, but communication between the child and parents begins even before birth. Therefore, it is good if parents speak to their child and sing to him in their native languages during pregnancy and infancy.

While the child is small, you need to make sure that he needs both languages. In other words, if a child does not yet know how to speak another language, you should not give up, but continue to speak your native language – often the child understands more than he can reproduce himself. If the child does not know how / does not understand something from what you say, you can repeat what was said in both languages or you, as parents, can help each other in such a situation. 

A simple and enjoyable way to learn new words together is to look at a picture book or watch a cartoon and talk about what you see in simple words and sentences. Drawings based on the plot of a story or talking about its events is also a good way to learn a language.

It is important to ensure that the child has enough developmentally stimulating activities in both languages. This means that there are contacts in different languages – friends, relatives, acquaintances, books, CDs, films, etc. If the whole family often watches films in the native language of one of the parents, this greatly contributes to the development of the child’s bilingualism; Maintaining relationships with relatives and friends of both parents has a similar effect.

When you are away from home with a child, you should not prohibit the child from using a “minority language”, but you should communicate with the child in this language as naturally as at home. The child already early begins to understand in what situations it is undesirable to use a certain language, and by this, the zone of use of this language narrows.