The Role of Parents' Knowledge about Bilingualism in the Transmission of Heritage Languages

Sarah J. Shin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Parents are perhaps the single most significant source of heritage language input for immigrant children. In fact, research shows that parental use of the HL is crucial in children's HL development and that children who maintain fluency in the HL into adulthood often come from homes where the HL was spoken as a matter of policy (Bayley, Schechter, and Torres-Alaya 1996; Cho and Krashen 2000; Hakuta and D'Andrea 1992; Kondo 1998; Portes and Hao 1998). Because English has such a powerful and overriding influence on children's linguistic repertoire once they begin attending school, some parents institute a household ban on English to protect the use of the HL. However, insisting on using the HL at home is an enormously difficult task as children protest being made to speak and learn a language that they perceive as having little value in school and society. In the most common scenario, children learn English at school and start speaking it at home to parents and siblings, and parents also switch over to it at least when they are addressing the children. As more English is used at home, children get fewer and fewer opportunities to hear and speak the mother tongue, which contributes to HL loss.

Research shows that immigrant parents generally favor HL development in children (Shin and Krashen 1998). While parents are quite aware that children must have strong English skills to be academically successful, many also want them to retain full use of the HL as the language of social interaction in the ethnic home and community. However, a positive attitude toward the HL does not always translate to actual support for the HL for a variety of reasons ( Schecter and Bayley 1997). As Wong Fillmore (this article) argues, some of these reasons may be internal (e.g., immigrants may choose to stop speaking their languages because they may not want to be perceived as being different from the mainstream population) while others are external (e.g., educational policies that focus on students' development of English skills push parents and children to abandon work on the HL). One crucial issue that has received little attention in this discussion, however, is how the decision made by parents to switch to English is motivated by their lack of knowledge about the facts and myths of bilingualism.

There are many myths surrounding bilingualism that are particularly damaging to HL development. One such myth is that a bilingual is two monolinguals in one person. It is often assumed that "true bilinguals" are those who are equally fluent in their two languages, with competence in both languages comparable to those of monolinguals of those languages. In reality, however, bilinguals will rarely have balanced proficiency in their two languages. Terms such as "full bilingual" and "balanced bilingual" represent idealized concepts that do not characterize the great majority of the world's bilinguals. Rarely will any bilingual be equally proficient in speaking, listening, reading or writing both languages across all different situations and domains. However, the monolingual view of bilingualism is so entrenched in popular and scholarly thinking that bilinguals themselves may apologize to monolinguals for not speaking their language as well as do the monolinguals, thus accepting and reinforcing the myth.

In educational circles, the term "semilingual" has been used to describe bilingual students who appear to lack proficiency in both languages (Martin-Jones and Romaine 1986). There is evidence that young immigrant children momentarily lag in grammatical development in both of their languages when compared to their same-age monolingual counterparts (Pfaff 1992, 1993; Shin and Milroy 1999; Verhoeven 1988; Verhoeven and Boeschoten 1986; Verhoeven and Vermeer 1985) but the errors usually disappear as they grow up. However, findings such as these have been misinterpreted as saying that it is counter-productive to the child's welfare to develop and maintain proficiency in more than one language. Similarly, tests that are designed for monolinguals are often used to compare bilinguals?proficiency in either of their languages with that of monolinguals. These assessments often do not take into account that bilinguals use their two languages with different people, in different contexts and for different purposes. They also do not take into account the fact that bilingualism is never static and that children are continuously developing in their two languages.

The "semilingual" view also maintains that there will be negative consequences for cognitive processing for bilinguals, because of the potential confusion between what monolinguals perceive as two underdeveloped languages. For example, in many monolingual societies, immigrant parents are routinely advised by doctors, speech therapists, teachers and counselors to forbid any other language, apart from English, to be used in their home so as not to "confuse" the children with input from two languages. The argument that bilingual input confuses children is not valid, however, since most children growing up in bilingual or multilingual societies (e.g. India, Singapore, as well as many Asian and African countries) learn to use two or more languages with no apparent negative consequences to their cognitive development. This view is not supported by empirical sociolinguistic evidence either.

Informing parents of the facts and myths of bilingualism and teaching them specific strategies to support HL development, then, would provide them with the necessary ammunition to withstand the overwhelming internal and external pressures to switch to English. This line of thought leads to several key research questions:

1. What is the best way to present the facts and myths of bilingualism, as well as the process of normal language development (in L1 and L2), to anxious parents who want their children to get a head start in English?

2. Does parents' fear that their children will not know English adequately (and will fall behind in school) motivate their shift to English? How significant is this fear?

3. How can we best reach parents about ways to promote HL development and maintenance? Would testimonials of successful HL speakers help? Could teachers be trained to inform parents and children of these? What about the use of the media and community organizations?

4. What set of criteria should be used to measure changes in parental behavior toward HL development?

These questions concern producing fundamental changes in parental behavior. What is at stake is not how parents?attitudes are improved but, rather, how their actual behavior toward HL maintenance is changed as a result of such education.

Published: Monday, May 12, 2003