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Opening Up New Worlds: Raising Bilingual Children

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

I found myself deeply moved by an article by Kat Chow in the Atlantic Daily, titled "The Parents Struggling to Pass Down a Language They Barely Speak." Kat's parents, originally from China, made the difficult decision to stop using their native language at home when one of their children came home from school upset. This led to the adoption of English as the primary language within their household. Kat reflects on her adult attempts to learn her heritage language through various methods but with limited success. She openly shares her sense of loss over her inability to establish a deeper connection with her family's language and cultural heritage. It becomes evident that mastering a heritage language goes beyond merely acquiring a new linguistic skill; it involves capturing that language's emotions and subtle nuances, which can be challenging to convey in the destination language.

Immigrants' choice about whether to pass on their mother tongue to their children carries significant consequences. This decision is entangled with numerous challenges that immigrants face, including the necessity of learning the language of their new homeland and the complexities of assimilation. Immigrants and their offspring often grapple with discrimination, encompassing racial and ethnic bias and enduring stereotypes manifest in various forms of mistreatment, prejudice, or xenophobia based on ethnicity, nationality, or immigrant status. It is highly likely that one of the Chow sisters experienced some form of discrimination that profoundly altered the course for the entire family and future generations.

Similar stories of discrimination have emerged from our interviews with Polish immigrants. These narratives reveal feelings of marginalization, social exclusion, and stress that significantly affect their overall well-being and their children's sense of belonging. Some of these challenges can be traced back to policies and general attitudes toward immigrant assimilation and the preservation of cultural diversity. Our interviewees recalled being encouraged to adopt Americanized names upon arrival in the US. For instance, Stanislawa became Stella, Malgorzata became Margret, and Grazyna became Grace. In the eagerness and encouragement to assimilate quickly, English at home was promoted at the expense of the heritage language. In some families, the language is lost even by the first generation (children brought in as immigrants), often lost by the second generation and gone completely by the third generation.

Acquiring a new language and assimilating into a new culture are not easy tasks and can bring unexpected challenges. The expectation of communicating fluently in either the destination or heritage language has been recognized as a stressor specific to particular cultures. Immigrant children often feel pressured to improve their English proficiency, while those born in the United States may experience stress due to their limited proficiency in their heritage language. This stress can lead to abandoning the heritage language or losing interest in the culture altogether.

Acquiring proficiency in two or more languages is commonly referred to as bilingualism. Bilingualism can take different forms, including simultaneous bilingualism, where an individual learns two languages from birth, or sequential bilingualism, where a person acquires a second language after already having a grasp of their first language. Bilingualism has demonstrated a positive association with enhanced inhibitory control and heightened sociolinguistic awareness. Moreover, it has been associated with a wide range of advantages throughout one's life, including improvements in nonverbal executive function, cognitive tasks, and superior performance in working memory. The extent of one's bilingualism can fluctuate based on factors like language usage, ongoing practice, and opportunities for language maintenance.

The process of language acquisition is influenced by various other factors, including the age of exposure, the amount and quality of language input, individual motivation, and the context in which the languages are used. Learning a language as a child is easier, as children acquire languages more easily and naturally than adults. However, adults can also become proficient bilinguals with the right environment and effort.

To effectively nurture a heritage language, substantial exposure is essential. For instance, a mere three to four hours of Saturday school is insufficient. Regrettably, in Minnesota, children have limited chances for complete immersion in the Polish language—a disadvantage compared to Chicago, where Polish immersion schools are available. While there are two Polish language Saturday schools in Minneapolis (Adam Mickiewicz Saturday School and POLESOM), they alone do not provide adequate exposure. Families in which only one parent speaks Polish (or another language) confront a unique challenge because communicating with their children in their heritage language may exclude the other parent. Successful retention of a heritage language demands a more substantial level of exposure, preferably through daily interaction.

English happens to be my third language, although I've lost my second language due to a lack of use over the years. My family is bilingual, but getting there was a considerable undertaking.

As a family, we appreciate the benefits of multicultural and multilingual perspectives. Certain concepts and emotions may be more effectively expressed and understood in a particular language but not necessarily in both languages. Some notions require a whole sentence or a paragraph in one language, while another may have a single word for them. English does not have an equivalent for "dogadać (się)." A classic challenge for inexperienced translators is rendering “Thank you from the mountain” for “Z gory dziekuje” (Thank you in advance). I recently learned that the Polish word for "enabling" does not exist.

Being proficient in multiple languages broadens one's linguistic horizons and deepens cultural and emotional awareness. I wish Kat success in her quest to bring back her heritage language to her children when she has them, as it will bring more than just the language; it will open up a new world.


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