Language is home: Why we should celebrate and support multilingual parenting

On March 10th, Sheffield Libraries and the University of Sheffield are hosting the first “Sheffield Multilingual Book Day” at the Children’s Library. Celebrating both International Mother Language Day (21st February) and World Book Day (1st March), the event encourages parents to bring any books in any language they might have to sell or swap, and to browse the books on sale by other families, as well as getting to know the Library’s stock of multilingual books.

Sabine Little writes about why it’s important for families and schools to celebrate and support multilingual children.

In a recent Guardian Opinion piece, Tobias Jones mentions anecdotal evidence that parents are asked to stop speaking their mother tongue with children at home. This has been mirrored in my own research, and both as a parent of a bilingual child and as a researcher, I have time and time again witnessed both families and schools being unsure of how to support multilingual children. In my interviews in schools, children as young as eight self-edit their talks about language and reading, making the assumption that outsiders of the family will not be interested in the home language.

These children believe their home language skills to be of no interest to somebody they meet within the formal education system. This is not only sad, it is wrong. Our languages are part of our identity, and having one language — one part of our identity — dismissed sends worrying messages that can affect not only family cohesion and future employment, but also mental wellbeing and stop children from drawing on their full linguistic repertoire.

With International Mother Language Day on 21st of February, and World Book Day on 1st March, it is time that our children feel that their home language and literacy skills are valued — everywhere. Schools continue to be under immense pressure to meet targets, and, through reports such as Bold Beginnings, which pushes for formalised tests in the first few weeks of primary school, it is unsurprising that teachers ask parents to focus on English.

Yet the problem is not the home language. The problem is not the teachers, who have had to weather change after change towards a system which is more and more based on homogeneity and performance measures from an early age. The problem is an education system which supports a monolingual world view, when a significant proportion of the population — not just in the world, but in the UK, is multilingual. For multilingual children, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Being able to draw on more than one linguistic and cultural repertoire is a considerable advantage, but trusting that it will “just kind of happen” is dangerous. The British Council’s annual Review of Language Trends included home languages for the first time in 2016, and shows a fragmented education system where awareness and support for home languages in schools relies typically on enthusiastic individuals.

For many families, supporting the heritage language — the language ‘inherited’ throughout the family — has both practical and emotional importance. Maintaining the language forms a vital connection to older generations, who may or may not speak English. The advantages of bilingualism in terms of employability are mentioned frequently — but language is not just practical. Language is emotional, language is “home”, language is identity. This does not mean an automatic rejection of English — neither of the language, nor of the culture. This is not a deficit model, an either/or. This is a call for awareness that family languages are important, and a call for support — both practical and ideological.

In Sheffield, the charity Languages Sheffield supported community-run language schools and events, until their funding ran out in late 2017. While there are discussions on how the legacy can best be maintained, there is no doubt that there will be a vacuum that will be difficult to fill. Sheffield is home to people speaking over 150 languages, working and living in the city, and two universities drawing in a vast number of international students every year.

Gaining and maintaining access to resources in the heritage language has been cited again and again in my interviews as one of the most difficult parts of bilingual parenting. Books are bought and shipped at considerable expense, only to be outgrown eventually. Not always is there somebody to pass these resources on to.

For this reason, Sheffield Libraries and the University of Sheffield are working together to host the first “Sheffield Multilingual Book Day”, on Saturday 10th March, 10am-3.30pm, in the Children’s Library. The informal event invites parents to bring any books they might have — whether one or a hundred — to swap or sell. Multilingual storytellers throughout the day will entertain the families, and there will be plenty of time to swap stories, hints and tips for bilingual parenting. Families can bring books at any time during the event, and stay as long as they like.

A Facebook Event has been set up for people to co-ordinate drop-ins and provide information about storytelling on the day, and a Facebook group has been set up to support multilingual families in and around Sheffield. If successful, the event will become a regular slot in the calendar, and will hopefully inspire other cities and towns to run similar events to support multilingualism in the community.

Dr Sabine Little is a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. You can follow her on Twitter.