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Integration vs. Preservation: Which Language Do You Teach Your Children?

confused-babyI remember meeting a girl at school whose parents were German and Italian, but had taught her neither language. Growing up in the USA, she had only ever spoken English. This seems to make sense; English is the main language in America and presumably was also the shared language between her parents and therefore spoken by them as a family. However, to me her parents had missed an opportunity. I would be extremely annoyed, I thought, if I could have been raised trilingual and ended up with just the one language.

“What the hell?” I would have asked my parents. Having three languages at your disposal would be totally awesome and make it easier to pick up other languages. To make matters worse, the school I met this girl in was in Switzerland; if she had been raised speaking German, she needn’t have been in the German class we shared in the first place. I wondered if she might have been bilingual, had her parents both spoken the same language; maybe it was the third language that complicated things?

I still think I would be miffed if that had happened to me, but now I’m older and wiser, I do recognise the difficulties in raising a child speaking several languages. Firstly, when you immigrate to another country, should you only speak the native language at home so as to help you integrate? What if your child starts getting confused between different languages or their speech seems to be developing more slowly? What if you grew up speaking more than one language yourself; which one do you use with your children?

multilingualOne of the hardest, but most vital, parts of relocating to a different country is having to learn a new language. Getting by with very little of the local lingo can be done, but it doesn’t make life easy. In order to truly integrate into your new home, most people agree that you need to speak the language. Should you go so far as to stop speaking your mother tongue? It may help you to learn faster, but at the expense of the comfort and familiarity of your own language. Another school I went to had a lot of Chinese students, who were encouraged to speak English all the time, even if they were talking to each other. I agree that it’s rude to say things not everyone in your presence understands, but it seems mean to expect people not to share their own language with others.

Language experts recommend that you speak your native language to your child at all times. So if one parent speaks Swedish, they speak Swedish to their children, even if the other parent speaks Portuguese and therefore talks to their children in Portuguese. Then whichever language the parents share is the one spoken as a family. It seems a shame not to pass your mother tongue on to the next generation; there are languages and dialects dying out because whole communities haven’t kept their language going (though not usually through any fault of their own). I say, don’t sacrifice your own language to learn a new one.

What’s your vote? Do you think people should stop speaking their native language at home to help them integrate in a new country?