The Importance of Maintaining Native Language
The United States is often proudly referred to as the “melting pot.” Cultural diversity has become a part of our country’s identity. However, as American linguist, Lilly Wong Fillmore, pointed out in her language loss study, minority languages remain surprisingly unsupported in our education system (1991, p. 342). Although her research was conducted more than twenty years ago, this fact still rings true. Many non-minority Americans are not aware of the native language loss that has become prevalent in children of immigrant parents. While parents can maintain native language, children educated in U.S. schools quickly lose touch with their language heritage. This phenomenon, called subtractive bilingualism, was first discovered by psychologist Wallace Lambert, in his study of the language acquisition of French-Canadian children. The term refers to the fact that learning a second language directly affects primary language, causing loss of native language fluency (Fillmore, 1991, p. 323). This kind of language erosion has been integral to the narrative of this country for some time. Many non-minority Americans can trace their family tree back to a time when their ancestors lost fluency in a language that was not English. Today, due to the great emphasis on assimilation into the United States’ English-speaking culture, children of various minorities are not only losing fluency, but also their ability to speak in their native language, at all (Fillmore, 1991, p. 324).
The misconceptions surrounding bilingual education has done much to increase the educational system’s negative outlook on minority languages. In Lynn Malarz’s bilingual curriculum handbook, she states that “the main purpose of the bilingual program is to teach English as soon as possible and integrate the children into the mainstream of education” (1998). This handbook, although written in 1998, still gives valuable insight into how the goals of bilingual education were viewed. Since English has become a global language, this focus of bilingual education, which leads immigrant children to a future of English monolingualism, seems valid to many educators and policymakers. Why support minority languages in a country where English is the language of the prosperous? Shouldn’t we assimilate children to English as soon as possible, so that they can succeed in the mainstream, English-speaking culture? This leads us to consider an essential question: does language loss matter? Through the research of many linguists, psychologists, and language educators, it has been shown that the effect of native language loss reaches far. It impacts familial and social relationships, personal identity, the socio-economic world, as well as cognitive abilities and academic success. This paper aims to examine the various benefits of maintaining one’s native language, and through this examination, reveal the negative effects of language loss.
The impact of native language loss in the familial sphere spans parent-child and grandparent-grandchild relationships, as well as cultural respects. Psychologists Boutakidis, Chao, and Rodríguez, (2011) conducted a study of Chinese and Korean immigrant families to see how the relationships between the 9th-grade adolescences and their parents were impacted by native language loss. They found that, because the adolescents had limited understanding and communicative abilities in the parental language, there were key cultural values that could not be understood (Boutakidis et al., 2011, p. 129). They also discovered there was a direct correlation between respect for parents and native language fluency. For example, honorific titles, a central component of respect unique to Chinese and Korean culture, have no English alternatives (p.129). They sum up their research pertaining to this idea by stating that “children’s fluency in the parental heritage language is integral to fully understanding and comprehending the parental culture” (Boutakidis et al., 2011, p. 129). Not only is language integral to maintaining parental respect, but also cultural identity.
In her research regarding parental perceptions of maintaining native language, Ruth Lingxin Yan (2003) found that immigrant parents not only agree on the importance of maintaining native language, but have similar reasoning for their views. She discovered that maintaining native language was important to parents, because of its impact on heritage culture, religion, moral values, community connections, and broader career opportunities.
Melec Rodriguez, whose parents immigrated to the United States before he was born, finds that his native language loss directly impacts his relationship with his grandparents. Rodriguez experienced his language loss in high school. He stated that due to his changing social group and the fact that he began interacting with his family less, he found himself forgetting “uncommon words in the language.” His “struggle to process information” causes him to “take a moment” to “form sentences in [his] mind during conversations” (M. Rodriguez, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2019). Of his interactions with his grandparents, who have a limited understanding of English, he stated:
“I find very often that I simply cannot think of a way to reply while conveying genuine emotion, and I know they feel I am detached at times because of that. I also struggle to tell exciting stories about my experiences and find it hard to create meaningful conversations with family” (M. Rodriguez, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2019).
Rodriguez’s native language loss creates a distinct communicative barrier between him and his grandparents, causing him difficulty in genuine connection building. Although this is a relatively obvious implication of native language loss, it is nonetheless a concerning effect.
Native language, as an integral part of the familial sphere, also has strong connections on a personal level. The degree of proficiency in one’s heritage language is intrinsically connected to self-identity. The Intercultural Development Research Association noted this connection, stating that “the child’s first language is critical to his or her identity. Maintaining this language helps the child value his or her culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept. (“Why Is It Important to Maintain the Native Language?” n.d.). Grace Cho, professor and researcher at California State University, concluded “that [heritage language] development can be an important part of identity formation and can help one retain a strong sense of identity to one's own ethnic group” (Cho, 2000, p. 369). In her research paper, she discussed the “identity crisis” many Korean American students face, due to the lack of proficiency they have in their heritage language (p. 374). Cho found that students with higher levels of fluency could engage in key aspects of their cultural community, which contributed greatly to overcoming identity crises and establishing their sense of self (p. 375).
Native language loss’ connections to family relationships and personal identity broaden to the social sphere, as well. Not only can native language loss benefit social interactions and one’s sense of cultural community, it has large-scale socioeconomic implication. In Cho’s study (2000) she found that college-aged participants with Korean ancestry were faced with many social challenges due to limited fluency in Korean. Participants labeled with poor proficiency remarked on the embarrassment they endured, leading them to withdraw from social situations that involved their own ethnic group (p. 376). These students thus felt isolated and excluded from the heritage culture their parents actively participated in. Native language loss also caused students to face rejection from their own ethnic communities, resulting in conflicts and frustration (p. 377). Participants that did not complain of any conflict actively avoided their Korean community due to their lack of proficiency (p. 378). Participants who were labeled as highly proficient in Korean told of the benefits this had, allowing them to “participate freely in cultural events or activities” (p. 374). Students who were able to maintain their native language were able to facilitate meaningful and beneficial interactions within their cultural community.
Melec Rodriguez made similar comments in his experience as a Spanish and English- speaking individual. Although his native language loss has negatively affected his familial relationships, he has found that, in the past, his Spanish fluency “allowed for a greater social network in [his] local community (school, church, events) as [he] was able to more easily understand and converse with others” (M. Rodriguez, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2019). As this research suggests, native language fluency has a considerate influence on social interactions. Essentially, a lack of fluency in one’s native language creates a social barrier; confident proficiency increases social benefits and allows genuine connections to form in one’s cultural community.
Benefits to the Economy
Maintaining native language not only benefits personal social spheres, but also personal career opportunities, and thereby the economy at large. Peeter Mehisto and David Marsh (2011), educators central to the Content and Language Integrated Learning educational approach, conducted research into the economic implications of bilingualism. Central to their discussion was the idea that “monolingualism acts as a barrier to trade and communication” (p. 26). Thus, bilingualism holds an intrinsic communicative value that benefits the economy. Although they discovered that the profits of bilingualism can change depending on the region, they referred to the Fradd/Boswell 1999 report, that showed Spanish and English-speaking Hispanics living in the United States earned more than Hispanics who had lost their Spanish fluency (Mehisto & Marsh, 2011, p. 22). Mehisto and Marsh also found that bilingualism makes many contributions to economic growth, specifically “education, government, [and] culture…” (p. 25). Bilingualism is valuable in a society in which numerous services are demanded by speakers of non-English languages. The United States is a prime example of a country in which this is the case.
Increased Job Opportunites
Melec Rodriguez, although he has experienced native language loss, explained that he experienced increased job opportunities due to his Spanish language background. He stated:
“Living in south Texas, it is very common for people to struggle with either English or Spanish, or even be completely unable to speak one of the languages. There are many restaurants or businesses which practice primarily in one language or the other. Being bilingual greatly increased the opportunity to get a job at many locations and could make or break being considered as a candidate” (M. Rodriguez, personal communication, Nov. 3, 2019).
Rodriguez went on to explain that if he were more confident in his native language, he would have been able to gain even more job opportunities. However, as his language loss has increased through the years, Spanish has become harder to utilize in work environments. Thus, maintaining one’s native language while assimilating to English is incredibly valuable, not only to the economy but also to one’s own occupational potential.
Cognitive and Academic Implications
Those who are losing native language fluency due to English assimilation are missing out on the cognitive and academic benefits of bilingualism. The Interculteral Development Research Association addresses an important issue in relation to immigrant children and academic success. When immigrant children begin at U. S. schools, most of their education is conducted in English. However, since these students are not yet fluent in English, they must switch to a language in which they function “at an intellectual level below their age” (“Why Is It Important to Maintain the Native Language?” n.d.). Thus, it is important that educational systems understand the importance of maintaining native language. It is also important for them to understand the misconceptions this situation poses for the academic assessments of such students.
In Enedina Garcia-Vazquez and her colleague's (1997) study of language proficiency’s connection to academic success, evidence was found that contradicted previous ideas about the correlation. The previous understanding of bilingualism in children was that it caused “mental confusion,” however, this was accounted for by the problematic methodologies used (Garcia- Vazquez, 1997, p. 395). In fact, Garcia-Vazquez et al. discuss how bilingualism increases “reasoning abilities” which influence “nonverbal problem-solving skills, divergent thinking skills, and field independence” (p. 396). Their study of English and Spanish speaking students revealed that proficiency in both languages leads to better scores on standardized tests (p. 404). The study agreed with previous research that showed bilingual children to exceed their monolingual peers when it came to situations involving “high level…cognitive control” (p. 396). Bilingualism thus proves to have a distinct influence on cognitive abilities.
Mehisto and Marsh (2011) discuss similar implications, citing research that reveals neurological differences in bilingual versus monolingual brains. This research indicates that the “corpus callosum in the brain of bilingual individuals is larger in area than is the case for monolinguals” (p. 30). This proves to be an important difference that reveals the bilingual individual’s superiority in many cognitive functions. When it comes to cognitive ability, Mehisto and Marsh discuss how bilinguals are able to draw on both languages, and thus “bring extra cognitive capacity” to problem-solving. Not only can bilingualism increase cognitive abilities, but it is also revealed to increase the “cognitive load” that they are able to manage at once (p.30). Many of the academic benefits of bilingualism focus on reading and writing skills. Garcia-Vazquez’s study focuses on how students who were fluent in both Spanish and English had superior verbal skills in both writing and reading, as well as oral communication (p. 404). However, research indicates that benefits are not confined to this area of academics. Due to increased cognition and problem-solving skills, research indicates that bilingual individuals who are fluent in both languages achieved better in mathematics than monolinguals, as well as less proficient bilinguals (Clarkson, 1992). Philip Clarkson, a mathematics education scholar, conducted one of many studies with students in Papua New Guinea. One key factor that Clarkson discovered was the importance of fluency level (p. 419). For example, if a student had experienced language loss in one of their languages, this loss directly impacted their mathematical competence. Not only does Clarkson’s research dissuade the preconceived notions that bilingualism gets in the way of mathematical learning, it actually proves to contribute “a clear advantage” for fluent bilingual students (p. 419). Clarkson goes on to suggest that this research disproves “the simplistic argument that has held sway for so long for not using languages other than English in Papua New Guinea schools” (p. 420). He thus implies the importance of maintaining the native language of the students in Papua New Guinea since this bilingual fluency directly impacts mathematical competency.
Both Garcia-Vazquez et al. and Mehisto and Marsh reveal how proficiency in two languages directly benefits a brain’s functions. Their research thus illustrates how maintaining one’s native language will lead to cognitive and academic benefits. Clarkson expands on the range of academic benefits a bilingual student might expect to have. It is important to note that, as Clarkson’s research showed, the fluency of a bilingual student has much influence on their mathematical abilities. Thus, maintaining a solid fluency in one’s native language is an important aspect of mathematical success.
Suggested Educational Approach
The acculturation that occurs when immigrants move to the United States is the main force causing language loss. Because of the misconceptions of bilingual education, this language loss is not fully counteracted. Policymakers and educators have long held the belief that bilingual education is essentially a “cop-out” for immigrants who do not wish to assimilate to the United States’ English-speaking culture (Fillmore, 1991, p. 325). However, bilingual education is central to the maintenance of native language. Due to the misconceptions and varied views on this controversial subject, there are two extremes of bilingual education in the United States. In Malarz’s (1998) curriculum handbook, she explains the two different viewpoints of these approaches. The first pedological style’s goal is to fully assimilate language-minority students to English as quickly and directly as possible. Its mindset is based on the idea that English is the language of the successful, and that by teaching this language as early as possible, language- minority children will have the best chance of prospering in mainstream society. However, this mindset is ignorant of the concept of subtractive bilingualism, and thus is not aware that its approach is causing native language loss. The second approach Malarz discusses is the bilingual education that places primary importance on retaining the student’s heritage culture, and thereby, their native language. This approach faces much criticism ,since it seems to lack the appropriate focus of a country that revolves around its English-speaking culture. Neither of these approaches poses a suitable solution to the issue at hand. Maintaining native language, as we have discussed, is extremely valuable. However, learning English is also an important goal for the future of language-minority students. Thus, the most appropriate bilingual educational approach is one of careful balance. Native language, although important, should not be the goal, just as English assimilation should not be the central focus. Instead, the goal of bilingual education should be to combine the two former goals and consider them as mutually inclusive. This kind of balanced education is certainly not mainstream, although clearly needed. In Yan’s research regarding parental perceptions of maintaining native language, she found that parents sought after “bilingual schools or those that provided instruction with extra heritage language teaching” (2003, p. 99). Parents of language-minority students recognize the importance of this kind of education and educators and policymakers need to, as well.
The ramifications of native language loss should not be disregarded. Unless bilingual children are actively encouraged and assisted by parents and teachers to maintain their native language, these children will lose their bilingualism. They will not only lose their native fluency and the related benefits, but they will also experience the drawbacks associated with language loss. As the research presented in this article illustrates, there are several specific advantages to maintaining native language. The familial implications reveal that native language loss is detrimental to close relationships with parents and grandparents. Maintaining native language allows for more meaningful communication that can facilitate respect for these relationships as well as heritage culture as a whole. Native language maintenance is also an important factor in the retainment of personal identity. In regard to the social sphere, isolation and a feeling of rejection can occur if native language is not maintained. Additionally, it was found that maintaining native language allows for greater involvement in one’s cultural community. Other social factors included the benefits of bilingualism to the economy as well as the greater scope of job opportunities for bilingual individuals. A variety of studies concluded that there are many cognitive and academic benefits of retaining bilingualism. Due to the many effects of native language loss and the variety of benefits caused by maintaining native language, it can be determined that native language retainment is incredibly important.
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