When I graduated from University and was volunteering in a kindergarten classroom in London, an experienced teacher once told me that the students’ home languages should not be used at school, and that she encouraged immigrant parents to speak as much English at home as they could with their children so that they could “progress faster in their English academic work”.  I nodded and said something along the lines of “Oh… okay…” while inside, my stomach curled into a knot. At the time, my gut knew that something about this approach to language learning seemed wrong. I couldn’t come up with a meaningful or articulate response, both because I did not yet have the confidence to question an elder, and because I had not yet done any research on multilingual learning, translanguaging, or the importance of maintaining the home language.  All I knew was that it felt wrong to tell families to bury their first language (and by extension, their culture). Her advice gnawed away at me as I left the city and started my career at a school with a high newcomer population and began to research language learning and equity through my professional development activities and hands-on work with children and their families at various stages of English language proficiency.

Later on in my career, I met a wonderful educator whose parents had experienced the shameful era in which being of Japanese descent in North America often meant being targeted and persecuted.  His parents had chosen to give him an English name, to speak only English with him, and not to emphasize his rich cultural background. I was shocked when I found out that he didn’t know simple Japanese children’s songs, could not speak basic Japanese phrases, and did not know the names of common Japanese foods.  He was the perfect example of someone whose parents had buried their language and culture in order to “fit in” as Canadians. It made my heart hurt to think of all that he had lost out on, and everything that he would never understand about his own family and cultural heritage. This realization hit close to home for me, because I am a person of mixed cultural heritage, and my Japanese father had passed away, taking with him a huge part of my connection to my heritage.

As I grew in my teaching practice, researched language learning, and served as an Equity Representative for my local teacher federation, I became increasingly aware of the significance of language learning and the importance of maintaining home languages to academic performance as well as to the social, spiritual and emotional well-being of newcomers.   Language is so much more than just an ability to communicate basic needs. Language is culture. Language is power. Language is a deep bond linking people across many lands and experiences, and a tool that can be used to bridge huge gaps between human beings.

When we speak and process in other languages, our thinking changes. Our brains and personalities become more flexible.  A study by Susan Ervin showed that the personalities of Japanese-American women changed when they spoke in different languages.  Another study conducted by the University of Chicago and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that switching between languages impacts the ways in which people handle moral and ethical problem solving.  There have been studies linking bilingualism to higher executive function and cognitive organization, as well as increasing neuroplasticity and self-regulation skills.  We also now know that actively maintaining a home language as a bilingual person can delay the onset of dementia.  

In our current era of truth and reconciliation, in which Canadians are finally stepping up to accept responsibility for the lasting impacts of colonialism on our Aboriginal peoples, it is painful but necessary to reflect upon on the incredible loss of identity and culture created by the intentional elimination of Aboriginal languages in our own country’s Residential schooling system in the name of cultural and linguistic assimilation.  Part of examining history through a critical lens is to learn and apply lessons learned from past transgressions and to do our best not to replicate them in our current era. Denying students the ability to access their home language, either at school or at home, can deny them access to their sense of self, their sense of connection and understanding, and their ability to express their needs, thoughts and feelings.

As educational professionals, I believe that we have not only the ability but also the responsibility to promote the home languages of our students.  This might include encouraging multilingual signage in a school, or a teacher using Google Translate or peer or parent volunteers to help co-construct multilingual content area word walls or anchor charts to help students to understand key vocabulary in multiple languages.  It might mean encouraging kids to discuss a Social Studies topic in their first language, or inviting them to research and record their notes about a Science topic in their first language.  Perhaps it might include teachers using technology such as the “Taking Points” app to make two-way parent communication more accessible, or using volunteers or paid interpreters to help make access to information more equitable to newcomers.  It can include giving parents access to online resources about settlement in Canada in many languages, or information in their home language about how to best support their child’s success in school from the Ministry of Education.  It might involve allowing the reading of first-language books online or from the local library to count toward “home reading” books read at home.  It could include providing parents with information about local International Languages classes to help their child to become more proficient in their home language and more fully develop transferable language skills.  It most certainly involves educators viewing their students’ first languages as an asset instead of as a liability.

As a young volunteer, I didn’t realize how valuable it could be to allow students to tap into their home languages for social skills, to engage in academic research, to have rich, meaningful mathematics discourse, or to help students to bridge the gap between knowledge and understanding they had developed in their first language with the new language that they were acquiring.  All I knew is that it felt wrong to deny a child a link to their language and culture. As it turns out, after years of research and work with students from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, my “gut instinct” was spot on.

If you’re interested in delving a little deeper into the use of home languages in our classrooms and schools, there is an excellent article from the ETFO Voice magazine, that addresses the issue of using home languages as assets and resources, and provides concrete examples of how schools can capitalize on the many languages that children bring to the elementary school setting.

Here is a wonderful article, written by Ellen Kester, an experienced speech-language pathologist, on the importance of maintaining the home language, with many links to associated research material at the end of the article.

The work of Professor Jim Cummins may also be of interest to educators  or parents who would like to know more about how encouraging the use and development of students’ home languages is an asset to their learning and to the learning of their peers.