Keeping it in the family
For expat parents, passing on their native languages can be a struggle
“You understand grandmother when she talks to you, don’t you, darling?” The girl nods. Johnson met her—and her Danish mother and English father—at the airport, en route to Denmark. The parents were eager to discuss their experience of bringing up their daughter bilingually in London. It isn’t easy: the husband does not speak Danish, so the child hears the language only from her mother, who has come to accept that she will reply in English.
This can be painful. Not sharing your first language with loved ones is hard. Not passing it on to your own child can be especially tough. Many expat and immigrant parents feel a sense of failure; they wring their hands and share stories on parenting forums and social media, hoping to find the secret to nurturing bilingual children successfully.
Children are linguistic sponges, but this doesn’t mean that cursory exposure is enough. They must hear a language quite a bit to understand it—and use it often to be able to speak it comfortably. This is mental work, and a child who doesn’t have a motive to speak a language— either a need or a strong desire— will often avoid it. Children’s brains are already busy enough.
So languages often wither and die when parents move abroad. Consider America. The foreign-born share of the population is 13.7%, and has never been lower than 4.7% (in 1970). And yet foreign- language speakers don’t accumulate: today just 25% of the population speaks another language. That’s because, typically, the first generation born in America is bilingual, and the second is monolingual—in English, the children often struggling to speak easily with their immigrant grandparents.
In the past, governments discouraged immigrant families from keeping their languages. Teddy Roosevelt worried that America would become a“polyglot boarding- house”. These days, officials tend to be less interventionist; some even see a valuable resource in immigrants’ language abilities. Yet many factors conspire to ensure that children still lose their parents’ languages, or never learn them.