Immigrant Parents and Language Learning

I am the child of immigrants. Like many children growing up in dual language environments, I grew up speaking a home language (Spanish) and although I knew some English, I learned most of my English in school– starting in kindergarten. My mother in fact says we learned English together.  As a child I quickly became aware that the English spoken by my parents and that spoken by the rest of the world was not the same. Today, I came across this article in SF Gate where Jeff Yang talked about conversations with his mother-in-law in context of reading two popular blogs: my mom is a fob and my dad is a fob. I laughed and I cried, what can I say. These are exactly the kinds of interactions I’ve had with my parents and continue to have with my mom. Malapropisms, eggcorns, and spoonerisms— I had to have a whole dictionary for what my parents meant. But, through it all parents convey that they love their children and that they care. While the two fob sites draw on examples of Asian moms and dads– let me tell you this stuff isn’t limited to Asian parents!  There are so many wonderful examples of exactly the kinds of interactions I had with my parents (okay, the accents and words were different but with the same kinds of slips and intents).

I remember in kindergarten I learned a song, “Johnny had an apple on a stick.” I would sing it every day when I came home. Now, I had no idea that an “apple on a stick” could be this. I just sang the song, I did wonder why someone would want to put an apple on a hunk of wood, or a slab of meat because you see I sang the song as “Johnny had an apple on a stake (or steak).” My mother would correct me, “No Lees, ees apple on a steeeiiik,” “I know” I’d say in increasing frustration, “apple on a stake.” Clearly, she and I could both perceive the vowel difference even if we couldn’t produce it at that time.

I did learn English however, and my pronunciation isn’t half bad (my spelling is terrible, but that’s another story). My point here is that kids learning a home language and a community language through school (and at home through what we might think of less than an ideal model) still learn both languages very successfully. In fact, they tend to learn the community language even better than the first as their dominance shifts to the majority language and they learn to read and write in that language. Preserving the home language helps children make important connections with their parents, grandparents and extended family. Communication in whatever mix of language(s) and yes– error– maintains these connections through your whole life and they become a part of who you are.

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  1. #1 by asilva on October 17, 2009 - 5:53 pm

    It’s unfortunate that a greater effort is often not made to extend this bilingualism beyond the 2nd generation. My father is a bilingual child of immigrants, and a few decades ago when I was growing up, I was often exposed to two languages, but, being a child of the times, only wanted to distance myself from that old-world culture. I blame no one but myself; however, in today’s world, I hope more families see the value of bilingualism and strive to continue it over many generations.

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on October 17, 2009 - 10:21 pm

    It’s very typical for the community or host language to take over completely by the 3rd generation. That’s what’s so interesting about these folks who talk about immigrants “refusing” to learn the majority language. Most do, children will be bilingual, and often their children will be monolingual in the majority language. I don’t see the “refusal” there.

    One thing that I see as being so positive about the two fob blogs I mentioned is that these errors and missteps in language use are enjoyed and celebrated rather than something to be distanced from…

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