Why it is important for children to learn and maintain their first or native language

We use language to communicate with others, to establish relationships and a sense of self, and to  express who we are; it is an integral part of being human.  The gain of a second language is a wonderful thing, but it should not happen at the expense of the loss of one’s first language, which connects us to a part of our identity that can’t be replaced. Research has shown the possibility of acquiring two or more languages simultaneously as well as the cognitive benefits of multilingualism. Multiculturalism and multilingualism are achievable, and several countries and even indigenous communities can attest to that.  

The loss of the first or native language is a serious problem for bilingual children. First language loss is caused by several factors, including the eagerness to assimilate to the dominant culture and social pressure. Parents and educators must be well prepared to deal with bilingual students and to recognize and value the importance of maintaining their cultural and language heritage which enriches not only the student, but the school community and the society as a whole.  The loss of the first language costs a great deal to children and their families, but also to the community as a whole and ultimately to the entire nation.

There is a widespread phenomenon of children at risk of losing their heritage language competence after enrolling in the school system and learning English.  At home, parents and other family members play a major role in maintaining and developing the first language.  Using the native language at home is not always easy, but the efforts will reap great benefits, and it is very important that parents are aware of them so they can make better language choices at home (learn more about the benefits of bilingualism).  It is crucial for children to receive enough comprehensible input in the first language to maintain and further develop it, since children will have more exposure to English outside of home than to their first or heritage language. Parents can help their children maintain their first language and culture at home while, at the same time, incorporate the elements of the new language (English) and culture into their life.  Parents should also seek other community resources and expose their child to their first language outside of home, in social settings, as often as possible. Parents and teachers should also talk to the children about role models in their own cultures that they can learn from.  Each culture has great heroes that help shape the mindset of its members. Parents should also consider reading to their children in their first language from an early age. Literacy skills development in the native language should start early and at home. All this takes strength and it can be challenging, but it is also worth the effort. 

 

Resources

Bolger, P. & Zapata, G. (2011). Psycholinguistic approaches to language processing in heritage speakers. Heritage Language Journal. 8 (1).  

Callahan, L. (2010). U.S. Latinos’ use of written Spanish: realities and aspirations. Heritage Language Journal. 7 (1). 

Dominguez, L. (2009). Charting the route of bilingual development: contributions from heritage speakers’ early acquisition. International Journal of Bilingualism. 13 (2). P. 271-287. 

Lai Yung Tung, C. (2009). Language maintenance and language loss in first language. U.S.-China Foreign Language. 7(7), 10-16. 

Ovando, C. and Combs, M. (2006). Bilingual and ESL Classrooms. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Proctor, C., August, D., Carlo, M., & Barr, C. (2010). Language Maintenance versus Language of Instruction: Spanish Reading Development among Latino and Latina Bilingual Learners. Journal of Social Issues, 66 (1), 79-94. 

Rothman, J. (2009). Understanding the nature and outcomes of early bilingualism: Romance languages as heritage languages. International Journal of Bilingualism. 13(2), 155-163. 

Tran, V. (2010). English gain vs. Spanish loss? Language assimilation among second generation Latinos in young adulthood. Social Forces. 89 (1), 257-284. 

 

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