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Growing up with Languages: Reflections on Multilingual Childhoods Claire Thomas Waltham Forest Bilingual Group.

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Presentation on theme: "Growing up with Languages: Reflections on Multilingual Childhoods Claire Thomas Waltham Forest Bilingual Group."— Presentation transcript:

1 Growing up with Languages: Reflections on Multilingual Childhoods Claire Thomas Waltham Forest Bilingual Group

2 I will cover  About WFBG  Why we started the project  Findings (highly summarised):  In the family  Education  As adults

3 Waltham Forest Bilingual Group  Founded 2003  Small self help group run by parents  Monthly drop in events to support families  Developed workshops for parents “We are not experts but we do know how it feels”  Developed talks (e.g. Credit Suisse)  Library of books about the subject

4 There is very little support for multilingual parents in the UK: “… it’s not always easy. It is very easy to give up... If you want your children to be bilingual you have to work at it.” WFBG member

5 “Whatever they say now, when your children are grown up they will be glad that you raised them bilingually.” Colin Baker

6 Research project Developed questionnaire & self assessment tool Interviewed 43 adults Global backgrounds – Asia, Africa as well as Europe and US. Wide range of issues Analysed and summarised

7 Interviews - limitations Historical – min 10 years ago, max 60 years ago Changes Technology – communications/TV Social changes (e.g. racism, language policy) Nature of mixed marriages/relationships Three single parents, no shared custody

8 Research project - limitations Not a scientific sample Initially positive stories Reviewed and actively searched for: Death of a parent Divorce Other problems e.g. parent’s mental health issues Problematic migration

9 Interviewees Mixed language families Migrant families Children who learnt through school alone 35 countries, 37 languages English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese Welsh, Occitan, Basque, Kurdish Esperanto, Kabye, Swahili, Gujarati

10 Findings re families/systems 1 No difference whether Mum or Dad spoke minority language Whether parent spoke language they had been parented in themselves Between OPOL and other systems Between extreme fluidity in system v. hard and fast rules (provided that input was retained) 5 children “resisted” but 4 speak it fluently & frequently as adults, one less so. Parents did not give up

11 Findings re families/systems 2 But Mixing languages can be a problem unless there is also a monolingual environment. Parents arguing about which language should be spoken or being snobbish about another’s language was harmful. Several interviews mentioned that they felt that they spoke none of their languages “perfectly”.

12 Findings re families/systems 3 Children’s personalities make a difference – being shy, wanting to fit in. Quite a few interviewees did feel, at times, different – roughly 50:50 positive/negative. Some children had accents in one or other language, most did not, some sounded international. Most children did loose languages very quickly when input ceased/reduced. Some retained. Holidays important

13 Findings re context Prestige helped, but …. oppressed languages also strong Parent’s emotional attachment to the language important Occitan speaker now only passive. Racism not linked to language (by interviewees) Children who were not visibly different seemed more worried about fitting in.

14 17 Interviewees started school in a language not spoken at home - 15 no problems at all, 2 minor problems that lasted a few weeks. Those who changed language of schooling later did struggle more, but many were still able to do very well. Interviewees very positive re school support where this existed (e.g. Sweden/UK) 1 bilingual Welsh English child had problems in London – racism – unsupportive staff. Findings re education 1

15 Very mixed reviews of studying home languages as a foreign language at school – some usefulness but quite a lot of quite recent poor practice. Many children did not enjoy Saturday language schools but as adults were glad they had attended, those who gave up wished they had continued. Many adults who were not literate in a language they had spoken at home, chose as young adults to do evening classes or taught themselves. Findings re education 2

16 Very many travelled as young adults for months/a year to countries where their minority language was spoken – thinking that they would fit it better there ….. Many adults were using their languages at work – but as a bonus not central. Interviewees as adults 1

17 Many were raising (or planned to raise) children multilingually Those who did not included those who had felt worst about not fitting in as children. Many played down bilingualism/didn’t talk about it much Findings re adults 2

18 “It was just how it was” “We didn’t question it” Almost anything can be “normal” for children (even no system at all) provided you start early and stick to it. Meanwhile others were very aware of language, dialects, accents. Really surprising how many children did retain language with very low input Surprised at how active children were in making choices about languages Interesting observations

19 But they were glad …. 38 out of 43 straightforwardly glad 5 out of 43 said it was good but … No one said they wished it had happened to them or that their parents hadn’t bothered.

20 But they were glad …. I love it. It gives me another level of understanding. Your whole view of the way the world works is formed through language. I think your imaginary world is much richer. You have cultural experiences and cultural references, and a richer inner life. “I live in that grey area neither one thing nor another. Bilingual people are simultaneously insiders and outsiders and I think that that is more powerful than being one or another.”

21 Questions or comments?

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