I love you in multiple languages - bilingual children

Death of a culture – what will die with you? Bilingual children


I love you in multiple languages - bilingual childrenThe relationship between language and culture

I remember a discussion in my undergraduate sociology class that surrounded the theory that, “without language, we lose culture.” What does this mean? As parents, I take it to mean that if we have the gift of a “native tongue” that we fail to pass on to our children, we are choosing to not pass on our culture. Raising bilingual children not only passes on language but also culture.

In the past, those who came to the US were often forced to not teach their mother languages to their children – basically required to immerse their children into English with no chance of passing on “the home country” language. (Please note, the US does not have an official language). Also, we have small cultural sects or minorities in other countries who faced the same situation – they were forced to deny their heritage whether through social pressure or government control (such as the Maavaci of Russia). This process attempts to keep a more homogeneous culture and parents may see this as “better” because their children’ won’t be seen as outsiders, and not teach their language to their children by choice. It seems that instead of understanding no matter what we will have differences and seeing how being unique is a quality we should embrace, we are, instead, just keeping secret something that should be considered a gift.

Are we killing part of a culture when we don’t pass on language?

Now I am not saying you MUST teach your children another language or that you are a bad parent if it doesn’t work for you. I’m also not saying that if you know another language, especially if you are a native speaker, that you have to teach your child that language. There are no absolutes in parenting! But, not passing on a language not only affects the ability to converse in a language, but being fluent in multiple languages allows you to actually THINK differently. “All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express.” (Baroditsky, L, 2010).

Cuneiform script, first written languageNative Speaking – Truly Bilingual

To speak like a native, first we have to learn a language from a native speaker. Second, it seems to be important to learn language two (L2 in linguistics) by around ages 5-6 and actually the “recognition” of these accents starts to decrease by age one! Yes, infants can tell the difference! So, speaking in another language to an infant MATTERS, not only because their brain development, but also so that, we, as caregivers get in the practice of speaking that language. This time appears to be that cusp point for our brains and tongues to match. I am on a reading list on linkedin for TESL teachers and accent coaches. There is only so much someone can attempt to help “fix” later on – our tongues learn to work a certain way, our brains know different context (we may not even KNOW to think of another way to say how the snow is drifting or the multiple ways to say the color blue). For me, it is hard for me to speak things in so many languages because I can’t roll my “r” – it just wasn’t something I heard or had to do or was taught early on – my brain just doesn’t know how to tell my tongue to do that!

So, if you have that second language in your family, don’t feel like you can’t bring it in because you weren’t doing say “one speaker, one language” idea from birth (which isn’t the only way to do it anyway). It is never “too late” though there are cusps when learning happens easiest both on our brains and willingness. You CAN pass on a language, especially if you’re talking a younger child. Now since language and culture are so intertwined, knowing another language fluently can affect a child’s sense of “who” they are – make learning another language, especially if it is one in your family’s heritage a positive experience.

When we choose to not teach our children a language we have to recognize that part of how we think also is not passed on. So, if we learn a language later in life, we will try to implement rules of logic, thought, and grammar into that ‘new’ language. Genc & Bada (2005) indicated that the theory of language and culture is so intertwined because, “we perceive the world in terms of categories and distinctions found in our  native language and… what is found in  one language may not be found in another language due to cultural differences.” (Read the full article here).

The gift of multiple langauges

Here’s the thing, if we have the gift of another language, there shouldn’t be a reason to keep it in our back pocket and not gift our children with that second language. If, at a later age, your child doesn’t want to keep it up, they can choose to do so! A child adopted internationally and not given the opportunity to keep their language up, for example, mostly ends up going through the process of language attrition. If you teach your child another language and later chooses to abandon the language, and that’s okay with the parents, that is fine! But, I have yet to meet an adult whose mother or father spoke a different language and said “wow, I wish they never taught me [insert language here].” Instead I know plenty of people who say, “I wish my dad/mom had taught me their language.”

I guess an extension to this question would be – what do we fail to learn in language when we learn from say a book or a non-native speaker? If we try to “go back” and learn a language, lost from previous generations, we may be able to reconnect, but only within the context we have of our teachers.

Parents, if you have another language sitting in your back pocket, feel free to pass it on to your children. It really is a gift.

Share and Enjoy

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS


  1. Requiring people to teach their children English when they come to this country (which I *totally* agree with) is not at all the same thing as requiring them to *not* teach their native language (which I utterly *dis*agree with). I wish I knew the languages my g-grandparents spoke.

    My hubby is a fluent Spanish-speaker (by learning, not natively; he majored in Spanish), and I tried to get him to raise our kids bilingual, 'cause it's SO much easier to learn a language young. But he felt too weird speaking to them in a language I don't speak – like he was going behind my back or something. ('Though I daresay it would have helped me learn, too!)

    Something you can do, though, even if you don't speak another language yourself, is to expose your children to the language young. It helps keep those neural pathways open, to hear the sounds of the language.

  2. Pingback: Language requirements in schools in Mumbai | Fees for Top Schools in Mumbai
  3. Both of my parents were born in the US and were not bi-lingual-they just knew a couple of words-I am totally not bi-lingual and not for lack of trying! I am aware that there is no official language in the US-but it would help stop a lot of misunderstandings and mistrust if everyone could at least understand each other on some level. Being bi-lingual can only help a person in this ever contracting world.

  4. My Husband Fathers family is from Italy. When the parents came to the US (that would be my Hubs Grandparents) They would only let their children speak English in the house. Italian wasn’t allowed, so they never learned to speak it. I think this is so sad.

  5. I am not bilingual but do wish I was. My ancestors are a hug mix (so I guess I’m a mutt), but it would have been interesting to have some of that passed down through the generations.

  6. wow….Amanda! This is something I struggle with every day! I am bilingual and so are my children.. or must I say, they are supposed to be? I try to speak to them whenever I can in our language but my hubby strongly feel against it since he is not bilingual.. I want to pass my culture on to them but sometimes I feel that I just won’t win it :( Great post, I really love it!

  7. What an interesting topic. I try and immerse my children in as many cultures and language as possible but know many are not as open. I wish different languages could be passed to all children. Language is such a beautiful thing!

  8. I think it depends on your reasons for not teaching it. I knew one girl who because of her past wanted to forget everything that came with her culture including the language. She refused to speak it or of her country because of how she was treated.

  9. We have friends who met in Brazil. They are married now and in the US (with three young children added to their family). Both the mom and dad speak Portuguese and English, and they’re teaching both languages to the kids too. Very awesome to me. :)

  10. I think it’s safe to say most people in the US speak English. It’s important for everyone who lives here to understand English. However, not being able to learn their own language in addition to theirs, if that is what they want to do is wrong. My husband is half Mexican and he cannot speak Spanish. If he chose to learn, it wouldn’t be a problem, but he doesn’t have any interest in speaking Spanish. However, I love learning new languages and took a few years of Spanish in highschool. Being bilingual gets you better jobs sometimes!

  11. I was blessed with parents that immigrated to the US & was still learning English themselves at the time I was born. Thus, I learned to speak Mandarin instead of English. You can bet your tushy my child will be learning at least bits & pieces of that :)

  12. Growing up we had to pick a language in school to learn. Same now, and I like it. I did learn sign language better than French though which I did on my own

  13. I’m not bilingual but do believe that it’s an asset. I’ve been teaching my toddler French and recently introduced Italian. I do wish I spoke another fluent language though.

  14. I speak Spanish but was raised speaking only English due to my step dad. My daughter is learning as well although she is teen. For us, it is not just about language but we focus on identity as well. I feel that is just as important.

  15. I think it is beneficial to teach kids a second language at a young age regardless of whether it’s your “native tongue” or not. I wish I learned another language young, or taught my son one when he was a toddler. It opens up so many opportunities down the road for them.

  16. What a great post. I soo think it’s important to pass on the language and the culture.. We are a bilingual family (German / american) and I try to include as many of our traditions, recipes, ideas as I can. My kids watch german TV and can speak the language, not fluent but enough to get them what they need; we do visit Germany as often as we can and that helps as well.

  17. I am glad I am not the only one who can not roll an R!! I really have trouble learning languages other then my own. Neither of my parents spoke anything but English. My Grandparents didn’t speak in German or Hungarian either–they preferred English.

  18. We have had this discussion already. We plan to teach our son both Hindi and English. As well as several dialects.

  19. This is the reason why I started blogging and I could not agree with you more. It is tough to try to keep the home language/culture alive in the US because there is no support but we are always thinking of new ways to bring our Guatemalan culture into our American life. :) LOVE this post!!

  20. I agree that we’re giving our kids a gift when we raise them bilingual. They will never speak it natively if taught later in life, and the cultural immersion is so important.

  21. Being bilingual is such an asset. I remember how difficult it was to come to this country and not speak the language. Once I learned it, I was able to navigate many situations in both languages and do so to this day.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *