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A girl in sunglasses stands on her father's shoulders, next to a mother.
Moments of intimate playing, learning and teaching are among the ways that immigrant parents extend and expand their home languages with their children. (Rajesh Rajput/Unsplash)

5 ways immigrant parents support children’s home language learning

It is important to preserve and develop a child’s home language for their cultural, linguistic and social development. Research shows that English plays a dominant role in schools and society at large, while children’s diverse home languages are often marginalized. Languages other than English are often not welcomed or encouraged in classrooms.

Marginalizing languages beyond English in school has negative effects on children and classroom cultures by creating environments that suggest the daily language practices of children whose families speak languages other than English aren’t “good enough.” Unsurprisingly, if children feel unwelcome or disrespected in the classroom, this can adversely affect their learning engagement and academic achievement.

This includes immigrant children — children who were born elsewhere and immigrated with their families, or those who are born in Canada and are being raised by immigrant parents who are establishing new lives in a new country. In families that are seeking to retain a link with their heritage language, the burden of preserving this falls almost exclusively on parents.

Immigrant parents bring knowledge

However, schools rarely consider immigrant parents as capable knowledge holders. Immigrant parents and their knowledge are typically seen as having deficits. As education researcher Yan Guo notes, North American models of parent involvement tend to focus on experiences “relevant to parents of Anglo-Celtic descent than to those from non-English-speaking backgrounds,” as well as assuming “middle-class rather than working-class values and concerns.”

Through autobiographical narrative inquiry research, I explored the informal teaching and learning practices as an immigrant parent with my children in the home context.

My research highlighted something that other researchers have also documented: immigrant parents bring a lot of linguistic, cultural and social knowledge to their children’s home language education. Here are some of the ways they pass their knowledge of their home language along.

1. Using home language in daily conversations

Immigrant children’s home literacy-learning environments are characterized by conversations in their home language. Daily oral input is staggeringly important to a child’s language development. When parents engage in daily routines with their children, such as getting dressed, taking baths, eating meals, playing games, taking walks and so on, they elaborate, explain and encourage detailed conversations.

The use of home language becomes especially important after children begin formal schooling and master the English language. Parents who build a home-language-rich environment tend to foster in their children a more positive attitude toward and higher levels of proficiency in that language.

2. Engaging in inter-generational communication

In some Chinese immigrant families, grandparents continue the tradition of providing care to grandchildren. Inter-generational communication plays an important role in the development of immigrant children’s home languages. Everyday communication between generations promote a commitment to speak the child’s heritage language at home.

Children from multilingual homes are often acutely aware, for example, that their grandmother speaks another language, so they pay attention to whom they are talking to, and switch languages in different scenarios.

In some immigrant families, grandparents play an important role in passing on language and culture. (Pexels/Alex Green)

A second way grandparents pass on language and culture is by cooking and sharing food with their grandchildren. In such family activities, the two generations converse about making and enjoying authentic cultural cuisines together.

3. Reading picture books in intimate and creative ways

Research has confirmed that storybook exposure promotes language acquisition.

Many immigrant parents make picture book reading a part of their language practice because picture books have fascinating topics, short, simple text and visual images that help children communicate ideas.

Read more: Global Storybooks: From Arabic to Zulu, freely available digital tales in 50+ languages

Rather than a “learning activity,” shared reading at home is a fun family time during which everyone cuddles close and shares a book with lively pictures and vibrant colours in their home language.

My research demonstrated that children’s initiative, imagination and creativity makes picture book reading a rich experience. When parents and children together creatively respond to stories through creative media or performance, the transformative power of drawing, painting, crafting, music, dance and performance is not only a way to understand the stories more deeply, but also a way to create spaces to travel freely across the interwoven language worlds.

It is common in bilingual and multilingual households for children to use two or more languages spontaneously and pragmatically. Such exchange and use of languages is beneficial for both heritage and dominant language development.

A mother reads to two daughters.
Children’s initiative, imagination and creativity makes picture-book reading a rich experience. (Pexels/Kindel Media)

4. Developing language skills through real-life stories

Real-life stories are the most beloved type of storytelling, given the very personal and particular nature of the home landscape. Enacting real-life stories, such as about the day they were born, helps children develop advanced use of their home language, and makes them feel closer to their parents. These are the times when immigrant children learn how to listen to, participate in and understand when, where and how to express themselves in their home language.

In addition, the gradual introduction of more complex vocabulary and expressions supports the development of home language. Sharing past experiences and telling real-life stories also help develop children’s social capital — children’s sense of belonging to certain social and cultural networks, as well as their access to resources in these groups.

When children engage in real-life storytelling and story-acting, they benefit intellectually, socially, emotionally and linguistically. When children tell and act out true stories, in addition to developing memory and social skills, they draw on their bodies and manipulate objects in ways that support a foundation for language development.

5. Nurturing passion for early writing

As young as age two, children begin imitating the act of writing by making sketches and symbolic marks that reflect their ideas and thoughts. In immigrant families, early writing includes sketches and symbols in English and in their home language.

When a child writes in their home language it helps them to make relevant cultural and linguistic connections. Here, ‘apple’ is shown in traditional Chinese characters: 蘋果 (píng guǒ). (Shutterstock)

In many cases, children learn to read and write through play. Playful introduction to early writing at home helps young children open the door to their home language and the wonder of print. Immigrant parents engage their children in emergent writing at home to introduce the knowledge of sound/symbol connections, the conventions of print, and accessing and conveying meaning through print in their home language system (which might be very different from the dominant language).

Early writing in their home language also helps children construct meaning by making relevant cultural and linguistic connections between print in their home language and their own lived experiences.

Many immigrant parents extend and expand their children’s home language practices on a daily basis, through moments of intimate teaching, learning and playing. When schools acknowledge, honour and learn from immigrant parents’ knowledge, they support more opportunities to enhance young children’s linguistic, cultural and social experiences both at school and elsewhere.

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