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Family language

The term “mother tongue” is highly gendered, with many European languages using this term to describe someone’s first language. The term is highly reductive for third-culture kids or multi-national families, and language rarely works so simply. So, how important is it to pass on a language, and how do we talk about doing so?

Photographs: Visit Denmark

Text: Heather Storgaard

The language of linguistics can be hard to wrap your head around, especially if you grew up in a monolingual environment. Many terms, such as bilingual, get used differently by different people. Some claim you speak both languages equally since birth, while others use it to show fluency in two languages. The term heritage language can be helpful for families that have been mobile over multiple generations: this is typically used to describe a language that comes from a previous generation, such as a grandparent, that is understood and spoken at a less than fluent level and sometimes only used in limited environments. My favourite experience with a heritage language is a Norwegian-British friend who has Pakistani roots but speaks very little Urdu or Punjabi, his heritage languages. Despite this, he still uses Punjabi to swear while watching cricket!

The most popular, successful model for raising multi-lingual children is the one-language one-parent model, ensuring children get regular, consistent input from native-speaker parents. In this case, parent X would speak Xish, and parent Y would speak Yish, leading to a bilingual child. However, this isn’t a one size fits all solution and can be unworkable for families where more than two languages are spoken or where the child is getting more input from one language than the other. Children also typically wish to fit in with their peers, making “foreign” languages uncool and halting their progress. But, even when children speak both languages, reading and writing are also important points to tackle. Depending on the language, this can vary with difficulty, as world languages have many resources, while more minor languages or dialects have fewer.

"Children also typically wish to fit in with their peers, making “foreign” languages uncool and halting their progress."

Some who grew up in colonial or post-colonial societies choose not to pass on their local languages to children, speaking settler languages exclusively in the belief that this is in some way better. In other cases, children who attend school in settler languages lose the ability to speak their mother tongues. This can and does create a sense of a lack of identity and security for the children it affects. In Denmark, there is a famous and unfortunate case of a 1950s experiment where Greenlandic children were sent to Danish foster families and Danish-speaking boarding schools. This led to many of them being unable to speak Greenlandic and prevented them from later connecting with their parents and home communities, with devastating effects.

I grew up with English as a home language, Swiss-German and German as day-to-day languages, and two heritage languages, which I understand to some degree but never learnt to speak. At times, German certainly felt more natural to me than my “mother” tongue of English, much to my mother’s frustration! I remember stubbornly speaking German to her in public as a child, not wanting to engage with English at all. If my husband and I have children, there will be four languages to choose from, as we speak Danish. This makes the one-language one-parent model challenging, and we would have to find a different way to ensure we passed on the languages we chose.

However, if you haven’t passed on your language to your child from the start, be assured that all hope is not lost! You could start anytime, or your child could become interested later. For example, my husband’s family share a love for France, which has led to four generations of them now speaking the language despite it never being passed on in the home. Hopefully, this proves that even if a language isn’t passed on in the home at a young age, children can still acquire it if a keen interest in the culture is fostered.

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