Valuing all languages

October 27, 2023

For most of the world, speaking and understanding more than one language is considered the norm. Now, in the UK, many child-focused sectors agree that bilingual parents should not be discouraged from speaking their native language(s) to their child/ren – this was not the case in the past. But, today, the consensus about bilingualism is that: it is not a disadvantage, and it does not negatively impact a child!

However, for some Black families, the ‘Value your home language!’ message that we try to push may be challenging to take on due to historical events…

Black history, colonialism and language
One of the methods used to weaken enslaved people was to strip them of their identity. This was done in a number of ways – one approach being through language.

The language of the colonialists (usually a European language like English, French, or Portuguese) was imposed on Black people as the language of power, status, and elitism. Although the slave trade has been abolished, the negative ideas about the importance of Black languages that were repeatedly enforced for centuries continue to have a lasting impact today.

Several African and Caribbean countries continue to have a European language as their official language used by political parties, in the courts and as the language of instruction for schools. Additionally, there is a wealth of literature detailing the physical and sometimes psychological punishment that some pupils experience if they are ‘caught’ speaking their non-European language at school. Through covert and more open means, such children can grow up to become parents that perceive a European language to be more useful, prestigious and powerful in terms of social mobility.

Creole English are languages, too
A creole language develops because of different languages coming into contact with each other due to the blending of different ethnic groups. For an English-based creole like Jamaican Patois, for example, the bulk of its vocabulary comes from English (other words can come from Hindi or Spanish or West African languages like Twi, Igbo, Yoruba) but the grammar system mirrors Niger-Congo languages. This is a result of the combination of speakers from different parts of the world on the Jamaican island starting in the 17th century.

Because English-based creoles have many English words, these creole languages are often mistaken as an ‘accent’, ‘broken English’ or ‘slang’. Creole languages should be recognised as fully-fledged languages because they are. They have all the linguistic features of any other language. They should be celebrated and maintained, too.

The impact of language loss
Through my work with multilingual parents, I have personally met several parents that believed a shift to an ‘English-only’ policy at home once their child starts attending nursery or school was necessary for academic achievement. This goes directly against the research which encourages parents to speak the language(s) that they are most confident in – so there is a gap between research evidence and parent practice. A running thread across these parents is that they are all from countries that were once colonised.

This shift to only speaking English at home disrupts the likelihood of their language continuing for future generations. The effects of this can range from children potentially growing up struggling to maintain familial relationships with extended family members; experiencing cultural identity issues as they get older and losing out on the cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual. If parents feel like they must speak English, then this could also mean that children are not being given an appropriate linguistic foundation by their parents to go on to do well at school and in the world of work.

We all play a role in combating this. Especially educators who have been found to be key influencers in parental language choices. There are a range of ways to support these parents.

What can you do to help?

  • Encourage bilingual parents to pass their language(s) to their children as soon as you are in contact with them  – remember, for parents that might have experienced traumatic events in their home country related to their language, they may just name the European language. Always ask if there are other languages.
  • Display our EAL key messages.
  • Capture a parent/child’s linguistic background as accurately as possible – don’t assume, always ask .
  • Check out our Tots Talking programme for parents of two-year-olds – this can be a way you give parents dedicated time to discuss their concerns around language.
  • Think of ways you can acknowledge native Black languages by making them more visible in the classroom or on data collection forms.
  • Parents of toddlers can book onto our free TALK webinar ‘Talking more than one language