You can only transmit the emotional values of a language in your own language… if you start with English there is bad and good, and the ten nuances in between drop away. And in Dutch I have those nuances… transmitting my limited English to the children would be limiting their general development.
Dutch mother living in Christchurch
In recent years, several studies have highlighted disparities in children’s language abilities when starting primary school, while arguing that highly-developed language skills are an important predictor of schooling success (Fernald et al., 2013; Hart & Risley, 2003). These types of studies typically also show a negative correlation between socioeconomic status and language development, such that children from lower socioeconomic families tend to also have less well-developed language skills by school-starting age. This phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘Word Gap’, and parents have been encouraged to attempt to close this gap by increasing the total amount of talking they do with their young children (Hart & Risley, 2003).
More recent research has drawn an important distinction between the quantity and quality of parent-child language patterns, however, showing that quality of speech in fact plays a far greater role in language development than does quantity (Rowe, 2012). The current emphasis is therefore on encouraging ‘rich speech’ at home, such as by having involved conversations about things beyond the here and now, for example.
This has important repercussions for bilingual families in New Zealand, most particularly for parents with low English proficiency. It is much easier for parents to have rich, fluid, and varied conversations with their children in a language in which they feel confident and comfortable, and therefore more realistic to expect that this will be the language they use to build strong linguistic foundations for their children (Unsworth, 2015).
Well-meaning professionals occasionally suggest or encourage speaking only English at home for immigrant or other minority language speakers in New Zealand, particularly if they feel the children’s English proficiency needs a boost. Evidence suggests that increasing the use of English in the home for minority language-speakers does not increase children’s English proficiency (Hammer et al., 2009; Paradis, 2011), however, making any such recommendations misinformed and likely to be very detrimental to the development of the minority language.
Hammer, C. S., Davison, M. D., Lawrence, F. R., & Miccio, A. W. (2009). The Effect of Maternal Language on Bilingual Children’s Vocabulary and Emergent Literacy Development During Head Start and Kindergarten. Scientific Studies of Reading : The Official Journal of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading,13(2), 99–121.
Rowe, M. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity an quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child development, 83(5), 1762-1774.
Unsworth, S. (2015). Quantity and quality of language input in bilingual language development. In Nicoladis, E., & Montanari, S. (eds.) Lifespan perspectives on bilingualism. (pp. 136-196). Mouton de Gruyter/APA.
Additional resources on the importance of rich speech:
- Why talking to little kids matters – TEDx video by Anne Fernald, a leading researcher on infant-directed speech
- Why should parents talk to their children in their native language? – article by Ana Paula Mumy, speech-language pathologist and multilingual mother
- How quality helps babies’ language development grow
- Quality is crucial to language skills – summary of recent research findings
- Quantity and quality of language input – academic essay-style literature review on bilingual language inout
- Talking to promote your child’s language skills – written by Meredith Rowe, Associate Professor at the Harvard School of Graduate Education
- New research on early disparities – an easy-to-read summary of recent findings