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Research on language maintenance and transmission

In this video Dr. Eva Juarros Daussà from the University of Groningen provides an overview of the research on language maintenance and transmission.
According to the United Nations, in 2015 more than 244 million people were identified as migrants. And this is, by all means, a very conservative count, of course, if only because the definition itself of migrant– legal or not– is controversial. And numbers are rising. Now although migration is obviously not the only cause of multilingualism, these two circumstances– being an immigrant and being multilingual– are very much linked together. A community that receives migrants has all the right to ask from them to adopt the language or languages spoken there as well as any cultural practices that are nonrenounceable for its members, such as the way the different genders are treated, negotiating public and private spaces, and so on.
But it is also only fair in a community that benefits from the labour and diversity that migration brings to ensure respect for the rights and needs of these migrants. For example, their need to maintain their transnational networks, which in many cases means they wish to transmit their family languages to their children.
Parents should be able to choose which language to use in raising their children. For most parents this is not a conscious decision because they just follow the general practice in their community. But for some parents, it ends up needing a more explicit choice. For example, because the parents speak different languages, or they speak the same language, but the surrounding community speaks something else. In some cases, parents actually choose to abandon any or some of the languages they bring from their personal life. For example, if they’ve encountered discrimination because of speaking the language or being identified with a community that speaks that language and want to save their children from the same experience.
Or they want to make a break with the nationality or a group that caused them humiliations. And again, they don’t want to have a continuation of that in the privacy of their home. In some other cases parents decide to maintain a family language that is different from the one or the ones spoken in the community.
Parents might want to do that if, for example, family and social connections that are deemed important to the child are structured in such language, or if the family language is one that will bring future economic and social opportunities to the children, or just because of the pleasure of speaking your own language to your child for what it means of sharing memories of your own childhood and your intimate world, and perhaps later, in adolescence and early adulthood, increase the chance of better communication.
We also oftentimes see that language transmission is linked to the different values attached to the different languages, which in great measure depend on the social linguistic situation in the regional territory together with local and global policies and ideologies. And of course, there is the factor of identity, which is always a very delicate and complex issue and has to do with what cultural and personal labels and feelings parents would like their children to adopt as their own, which has a key role in their self-esteem and sense of belonging. For example, in my own research on Catalan and Galician families living in New York City, we clearly saw how the feeling of being Catalan was, in many cases, linked to speaking Catalan.
While many Galician parents felt that speaking Galician was not necessary for them to feel Galician.
One worry many parents manifest is whether the child will become confused when learning two, or three, or four languages at the same time, or whether the extra effort will cause them to fall behind in school, for example. But again and again, we find that babies and children go through the major milestones of language development following roughly the same schedule, whether they are monolingual or they are developing several languages at a time or in short sequence. But that is, of course, provided that they are given adequate exposure to all the target languages. And they are asked to systematically perform in all those languages also.
And this is one of the great challenges of a multilingual family, to ensure that the input to the children and also the elicited output allow for the harmonious development of their multilingual child. That requires that the parents be, of course, proficient in the language and also the support of family, school, playgroups, teachers, books, TV and computer games, and if possible, trips to a place where the language is used in a normal social setting. It takes a village. In many cases, finding that support might be challenging, especially if the child grows up in a predominantly monolingual social setting, because their special needs might not be recognised, or they might face criticism.
This is not to say that there are no specificities of multilingual speech. For example, given the appropriate context, multilinguals might mix their languages. Sometimes, especially children because they need to fill some gaps in their vocabulary, but other times just for a given effect such as humour, or for convenience, or many times to express their identity as complex individuals. In some cases, mixing languages is actually the norm for the family or the speech community. But in other cases, it is frowned upon.
Normally multilinguals learn at a very early age to control when they mix the languages or when it is better to keep them separate, depending on whom they are talking to, of course provided that they are allowed to keep developing their language skills. Now it is also very interesting to observe any linguistic peculiarities shown by the specific languages in contact. Languages are permeable systems. And sometimes a linguistic feature of one of the languages might spread into the other language, for example, because it provides a kind of grammatical shortcut, or because it makes both languages in contact more coherent with each other and therefore more easily learnable, or just because it is a good idea, grammatically speaking.
Depending on how concerned parents are with notions of purity of the language, this innovation is more or less accepted. But in any case, it is just normal and always a sign of great ingenuity on the part of the speaker.

In this video Dr. Eva Juarros Daussà from the University of Groningen provides an overview of the research on language maintenance and transmission.

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