Blog post written by Dr. Sabine Little, School of Education, University of Sheffield

It is interesting to work in the area of multilingualism in a country famous for its monolingual position in the world. Education policy in England, for example, recognises children from multilingual backgrounds (be they migrants, refugees, or later-generation speakers) only as part of a deficit model: focusing on English language acquisition and often struggling to integrate or acknowledge home languages. Nevertheless, nearly a quarter of primary school children in the country come from multilingual backgrounds (Tinsley and Board, 2016).

At international level, it is widely recognised that aid, care, and intervention work is more impactful when it takes into account cultural practices and languages of the target communities (Altaf et al, 2013; Bernstein et al, 2016; Hirchak et al, 2018), and I have been fortunate enough recently to receive seed funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund to explore the links between identity, language, and uptake of healthcare interventions in communities in Mexico (with Dr Ines Varela-Silva from the University of Loughborough) and India (with Dr Sneha Krishnan, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine).

What are the links between language, identity, and belonging? Interestingly, Romaine (1995) differentiates between ‘elite’ and ‘folk’ bilingualism, essentially stating that it is considered a luxury in some countries to argue about the merits of bilingualism, when it many countries it is either an economic or practical necessity. Bilingualism, or multi-lingualism is not a choice, it is an expectation, and a way of life.

Nevertheless, in my work (Little, 2017; 2019), many multilingual people express strong emotional preferences for one language over another. This is particularly prevalent in family situations, where languages get passed on to children. Not all languages have an equally high status, and, especially in families with a migration background, children may prefer the ‘societal’ language to the language spoken in the family. In these cases, parents can find it difficult not to feel personally rejected – again showing that language and identity are strongly linked. After all, most of our experiences are shaped by language. My own formative years (up until the age of 18) took place in Germany, before I moved to England. Although I have lived here longer than there, I have still not made up for the gaps of ‘lived experience’.

So how can we expect children who have never lived in ‘our’ country to share ‘our’ identity – and is it important? Evidence from a variety of studies says it is. Both in my own work and that of others (see e.g. Czubinska, 2017), adults highlight links between language and identity that are directly related to mental health. This is particularly important, given mental health needs are largely ‘invisible’. If there is a clear practical need for a child to learn their parents’ first language (e.g. to communicate with a relative who does not speak English (or the dominant language in a given context), or when preparing to migrate to a country where the family language is spoken), nobody will argue with a parent’s desire to maintain the family language. But emotional needs are not as clear, and many parents report that they neglect family language development, especially after starting school, for fears of their child ‘falling behind’. In England, this is particularly supported by the strong exam-based narrative in education, which is currently under scrutiny.

We need a better understanding of links between language and identity, understanding both pragmatic and emotional needs, and links to mental health. This is the aim of my current research, which is simultaneously seeking to support parents to share and discuss language needs with each other and their children. Through a quiz, you (and anybody!) can test your own links between language and identity. The outcome links to short guides and conversation starters for family conversations, which are based on prior research (Little, 2017, 2018, 2019). The quiz can be found here  (and, in a shameless plug, I hope lots of people take it and benefit from it!). Findings of the initial data collection will be shared in September 2019 here, although the quiz will continue to run.


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