Bilingual myth busters: ‘Should I stop speaking to my child in our native language?’

Bilingual parents are encouraged to speak to their child in the home language to support their child’s identity formation. (Image courtesy of Flickr user Todd & Anne Hoffman.)

By Shirley Huang, speech-language pathologist


Chinese New Year, the year of the rooster, is almost here! During the Chinese New Year holiday, family members come together to celebrate the holiday traditions. Children hear and use a great deal of Chinese language when they are with their family. They will sing classic Chinese New Year songs like “Gong Xi, Gong Xi” or exchange greetings such as “Gong Hay Fat Choy!” or “Sun Leen Fai Lok!” Adults will give lay see (red envelopes) to children and wish them good luck in the New Year. Children will listen to stories and learn about the meaning behind that year’s animal. Children who continue learning and speaking Chinese will have a positive relationship with their family members and develop a strong cultural and self-identity.

 Dinner time and family parties are important times for children to talk and connect with the family. Children who do not speak the home language may have more difficulty communicating with their parents or other family members. When parents speak to their children in English instead of their mother language, the conversation may feel uncomfortable or unnatural. This could lead to fewer communication opportunities for the child. If there are less social interactions between the parent and the child, the child may feel distant from his or her parents. It feels frustrating for children when they cannot say what they are thinking or understand what their parents are saying. However, children who do communicate in the mother language have a stronger and closer bond with their parents and family members.

Parents are encouraged to speak to their child in the home language in order to support their child’s identity formation. As children develop, their family, social communities and culture help to form their self-identity. When children do not speak the same language as their family members, they may feel isolated from the family. As described in the Chinese New Year example above, children are exposed to a lot of Chinese language. If children do not understand the language, then they may feel confused and uncomfortable with the Chinese traditions. Therefore, it can be difficult for the child to identify as a member of the Chinese community. Children who speak the native language feel a sense of belonging in the family and are more likely to develop a positive cultural and self-identity

 Continue speaking to your child in your home language because there are many long-term social and cultural benefits. Chinese New Year is the perfect time to expose your child to Chinese language and provide opportunities to connect with the family and culture!

    About the author

Shirley Huang is a bilingual speech-language pathologist in Boston who speaks Cantonese and English.

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