Parent talks to child

Keeping your children’s language alive while they learn English

By Maria Montemayor

Posted on May 24, 2021
parent talking to child
When newcomer parents arrive in Canada, they may wonder how they can share their culture and traditions with their children and at the same time support their English language learning. Many newcomers worry that their kids will lose their ability to speak in their mother tongue (a process called language attrition) after a while in Canada.

On the other hand, some immigrant parents think that in order for their children to learn English fluently, they have to stop talking to them in their native tongue altogether. They think that it would be confusing for their kids to learn two languages at the same time. Parents may believe that speaking to them primarily in English will prevent them from experiencing language confusion or from developing an accent.

Should I speak in my mother tongue to my children?

The good news is that speaking to your kids in your mother tongue will not hinder their English language learning. Even if they have a language impairment or language delay, research shows that children with language difficulties who are exposed to more than one language “do not have any extra delay or difficulties than monolingual children with similar language difficulties.”

In fact, keeping their mother tongue alive at home can improve your children’s English literacy, self-esteem, and cultural identity. It will be easier for them to learn English when they have a solid understanding of their first language. Additionally, people who speak more than one language have better listening, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. So, continue to speak to your kids in your mother tongue, and don’t be afraid to introduce them to new words because that will help them expand their vocabulary.
parent reading to child

Other ways to encourage first language proficiency

Apart from speaking to your children in their native language, you can also watch YouTube videos and movies in their first language with them or read them storybooks written in their native language. Registering them for weekend or after-school classes to learn and practice their mother tongue even more would also be beneficial. Lastly, you can introduce them to other people (babysitters, relatives, and friends’ children) who can confidently communicate with them in the same language. Your kids will gain many benefits from being bilingual!

What if I want to support my children’s English learning?

Whether or not you are fluent in English, there are many ways you can support your children’s English language skills while still teaching them your mother tongue, including:

  • Enrolling them in an ESL or literacy program at a library or community centre
  • Buying them books in English or going with them to the library to pick out books to borrow
  • Purchasing notebooks, paper, and writing utensils for your children to express themselves in whichever language they choose to use
  • Registering your kids for classes like skating, swimming, martial arts, or piano where they will learn new skills and interact in English with new people. Read this article to learn more about after school programs for kids.

Keep in mind that your children will be exposed to English through their teachers, peers, and the media. Your first language will become the minority language the moment your kids come to Canada. So, unless they are living in a community where English is not dominantly spoken (e.g., a French-speaking community), English will eventually become their default language, so you don’t need to worry about holding your children back by speaking to them in their mother tongue.

If you do end up in a French-speaking community and want your kids to learn English, you can hire a private English tutor for them.

What if my children stop speaking to me in their first language?

There are many cases where children feel conflicted about their cultural identity (they feel like they are in between cultures) and decide to respond to their parents only in English. They may do it as a form of rebellion or simply because they find it easier to speak in English. If they have only learned basic words and phrases at home, they may lack the vocabulary to express themselves fully in their first language. Additionally, they may not see a need to respond in their mother tongue if they know you can understand English.

First, do not panic. It is common for kids to test their boundaries and reject aspects of their ethnic identity to try to fit-in with their peers. Even if they don’t yet understand the benefits of maintaining their fluency, you can help them deepen their appreciation and respect for their first language and culture.

Second, don’t take it personally when your children are unwilling to speak to you in their mother tongue. As mentioned, it may not be a cultural issue but a weak vocabulary in their first language. If this is the case, try to have a conversation with your kids about your desire for them to talk to you in your first language. Let them know that you will help them and gently correct them if they encounter any vocabulary or grammatical issues.
volunteer speaking with woman
Here are some other things you can do:

  • Have your kids visit your friends and relatives who speak the minority language and don’t speak English fluently.
  • Enrol them in an immersive language camp or program.
  • Answer only when they speak to you in the minority language.
  • Take your kids to festivals and events that celebrate their ethnicity.
  • Travel with your children to the country (or countries) where your mother tongue is widely spoken.
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