Friday, May 16, 2014
NYT: When Not to Speak Your Second Language to Your Children?
This was an interesting NYT essay: When not to speak your second language to your children? by Jim Kling. To summarize his story, his wife is from the Philippines and bilingual in Tagalog and English. He is learning Tagalog, with "modest success." He thought it would be a good idea to practice his Tagalog with his infant daughter and spoke to her as much as he could is Tagalog - until he attended a lecture by Erika Hoff:
"When Erika Hoff, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, spoke about her studies of Spanish-speaking immigrants who spoke English to their children in hopes of better preparing them for school, one of her conclusions took me aback. She found that children whose native Spanish-speaking parents spoke primarily English benefited very little from this input. They picked up most of their English proficiency from native English speakers whom they encountered outside the family. On the other hand, when native Spanish-speaking parents spoke predominantly Spanish, the children received a big boost in their proficiency at Spanish."
With this information, Kling goes home and decides that he should no longer speak to his daughter in Tagalog and should focus on her English. His wife agreed with him, worried that he might confuse their daughter and that their daughter would eventually ask "Why does Papa talk funny?"
It sounds like Kling's Tagalog may have been really, really bad, in which case, maybe this was the better decision. But I have to say I disagree with his interpretation of Hoff's research. He seems to think he can compare his family's language situation to that of Hoff's research subjects. But I think they are very different.
Hoff's research was with Spanish-speaking immigrants to the U.S. Those who spoke to their children in English, which was not their native language, didn't necessarily harm their children's English, even if it was poor English, because those children would be exposed to standard English at school, in the media, in the culture at large. But it did harm their Spanish by not giving them enough exposure to become fluent. Those parents who spoke to their children in Spanish gave them the gift of being bilingual in both the culturally dominant language (English) and their heritage langauge (Spanish). What I am taking away from this research is that it is always more beneficial for parents to give their child a second language.
Kling's family language situation is different in that there is already at least one native English-speaker in the household (Kling himself) and English is also presumably the language of the marriage. Kling's wife speaks to their daughter in Tagalog, and that's good. But it is sad that she discouraged her husband from speaking to their daughter in Tagalog too, even if he only knew a few words. At some point, their daughter is going to realize English is the dominant language and it might be nice to have reinforcement from her husband, even if it is only with basic vocabulary like colors, numbers and animals.
I think Kling has misunderstood part of the research - speaking to his daughter in Tagalog wasn't going to hurt her Tagalog and it wasn't going to hurt her English either. If she lives in the U.S., she was never going to not be fluent in English just because she might hear Tagalog more than English in the home. But if she doesn't get enough exposure to Tagalog, she might never be fluent in her heritage language.
My view is that any exposure is good, even if it isn't perfect. I think I have to believe this, seeing that I'm teaching my daughter Portuguese even though it isn't my first language and I know I occasionally make mistakes. My husband's Portuguese is more than "modest", but he seems to be reluctant to speak it to C. I do wish he would at least give me reinforcement with basic baby vocabulary. I hate to be the language police and try to dictate who speaks what...but I'm not the least bit worried about C's exposure to English - we live in America! Our parents speak English to her! But I do worry about her Portuguese. I need to make some Brazilian friends soon, or she might start to rebel, and might one day ask "Why does Mama talk funny?"