Skip to main content

When Multilingual Learners Refuse to Speak Their Home Language

by Judie Haynes |

Over the years, I have taught many multilingual learners (MLs) who resisted speaking their home language as they became proficient in English. I remember well one student, Kenji Matsuyama. Kenji was born in the United States shortly after his family arrived from Japan for his father to take a new job. He was a native speaker of English by the time he started school in kindergarten. After third grade, Kenji no longer wanted to speak Japanese at all. He asked his parents to not speak Japanese in school or in front of his friends. He was proud to be the only American-born member of his family.

Mrs. Matsuyama spoke limited English, so she and her husband only spoke Japanese with each other. Kenji and his sister spoke only English together. When his mother spoke to Kenji in Japanese, he answered her in English, and when his grandmother came from Japan, he couldn’t converse with her. Unlike most of our Japanese families, the Matsuyama family didn’t send Kenji to Japanese Saturday school to keep up with his home language. Also, he didn’t socialize with Japanese newcomers in school and in their neighborhood.

This is a typical example of language erosion within a family. When Kenji was 11, the family was called back to Japan when Mr. Matsuyama was reassigned there by the company he worked for. I learned from another family in my school that Kenji was having a great deal of difficulty in the Japanese school he attended.

Home Language Erosion Affects Family Relationships

Why does home language erosion happen? The United States is a country that gives precedence to learning English, so a lot of young MLs regard speaking English more highly than speaking in the home language. Like Kenji, many MLs may not want or may be unable to speak their home language, according to bilingual speech language pathologist Michelle Posner. Posner says this can occur when MLs learn English at the expense of their home language; it can be a gradual process, and most parents don't realize their children are losing their ability to speak their home language until it’s gone.

According to the organization JAN Trust, which aims to empower marginalized women and youth, a child

whose native language is English, may not be able to have full and complex discussions with their mother about serious topics and issues, such as current world events or ideological concepts. Although the child may also be able to speak and understand their mother’s first language, they may not be fluent in it. Alternatively, they may reply in English as this is more natural to them; or an ad-hoc mix of both languages.

(This blog concentrated on what happens when a mother has limited skills in English, such as in Kenji’s case.)

How to Encourage Children to Retain Their Home Language

What Schools Can Do

School policy and teacher support are important in imparting to MLs that retention of their home language is a benefit. Schools must make an effort to celebrate bilingualism and promote the benefits to bilingualism and the bilingual advantage. It is important that school policy support the retention of their MLs’ home languages — as well as the acquisition of a second language among the general school population. According to Sabine Little, author of “Whose Heritage? What Inheritance? Conceptualizing Family Language Identities,” such opportunities are missed when multilingual children are viewed through a deficit lens.

What Families Can Do

Dr. Little also found that if families didn't address conflicting emotions around language choice, it could be a source of tension between parents and children. It's helpful if parents negotiate language choice with their children as they grow up but don't force them to speak the home language. Parents can support the importance of maintaining the home language by doing the following:

    1. Celebrating the importance of bilingualism, which provides academic and future career benefits.
    2. Listening to music, TV shows, and movies in the home language.
    3. Speaking the home language at dinner each night. Although it’s better not to force children to speak the home language, speaking it at fixed times every day will set expectations that the home language is important to the family and its identity.
    4. Exposing children to native speakers of the home language who live in the community. Among the Korean children that I taught, families attended a Korean church and much of their socializing was with families affiliated with their church. In this environment, Korean children spent hours in a Korean-speaking environment with families that they knew.
    5. Participating in holidays that occur in the home country. Many families I know communicate with family members and friends during important holidays who still live in their home country. They talk to families in the home language using FaceTime or other communication apps.
    6. Watching sports teams from the home country. Many families I know enjoy watching soccer, discussing the game, and cheering for their team using their home language.

As an educator, you can help your families to support their children in retaining their heritage language. Encourage the activities in the preceding list and take many opportunities to celebrate multilingualism!

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

comments powered by Disqus

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small piece of code that gives your computer a unique identity, but it does not contain any information that allows us to identify you personally. For more information on how TESOL International Association uses cookies, please read our privacy policy. Most browsers automatically accept cookies, but if you prefer, you can opt out by changing your browser settings.