Critical moments

Many people interviewed for the ‘bilingual teens’ ITML project reported there being a number of ‘critical moments’ throughout the child’s life that had impacted – either positively or negatively – on the family’s use of the minority language. It can be helpful to know that these are common experiences so that if they happen to you in the future (or if they are happening now!) you know that you are not alone, and that other bilingual families have successfully coped with these changes too. Some of the common ‘critical moments’ you might be able to predict or expect for your family can include:

When a family first comes to live in New Zealand

Example:
[My husband and I] both shared the conviction that bilingualism was an extraordinary thing we could give our children. When we decided to come and live here together I said the number one condition would be that we speak French at home (French mother).

When a first child is born and parents decide what language to speak at home

Example:
My parents used to tell me “You have to remember you are Chinese! Even you are NZ-born Chinese, you have to remember that you are actually from China, you are not local.” Some people agree with this, but others are repulsed by it. They believe living here means abandoning their past culture so as to integrate into the local culture and community. Like some friends of mine, their parents just think Chinese is not important for them any longer, as they live in an English society (Chinese teenager).

When a child first realises the home language is different to the community language

Example:
Zoe realised at 2 years old that it was English all around, except with me. So it was becoming harder. But otherwise, the age before they go to school is the easiest age, because they don’t revolt against the fact that you speak French or that they don’t understand all the words (French mother).

When other siblings are born and the family dynamics change

Example:
I think it was a bit harder [to speak French at home] when my younger brothers came along because there was less time to read in French with mum, and since my dad doesn’t speak French it was just more and more English [in the home] (French teenager).

Example:
By the time my third child appeared the home language had become English. Although we had intended to bring up the children with Mum: Dutch, Dad: English… by the time my youngest daughter was born… It was purely English. She spoke English to her siblings, to me, to her father (Dutch mother).

When a child realises one parent has lower proficiency in the minority language

Example:
[My husband] read Dutch books aloud as well… and one day our oldest boy told his father: “You’ve got a bad voice for Dutch Dad!” And he was not allowed to speak Dutch any longer. And that was very difficult because from then on we switched more and more to English (Dutch mother).

When a child begins to make friends outside the home

Example:
My sister doesn’t value much about making friends with Chinese people, so her Chinese is less fluent. By contrast, I have a lot of Chinese friends, so I can speak better Chinese than her. However, it is a bit difficult for me to make friends with white people (Chinese teenager).

When a child notices cultural differences between your family and others

Example:
Like, in an Asian household we have really strict rules, right? And then outside if my brothers go to their friend’s house and they discover that their parents are quite chill about some things then they come back and they’re frustrated about the fact that they think that that’s right and this is wrong. So there’s a lot of conflict about that between them and my parents (Korean teenager).

After a negative learning experience associated with the language

Example:
I didn’t like going to French lessons because I was very shy. As I got older I started to become more aware of things, and I realised it was quite a judgemental space – not an extremely friendly atmosphere I think (French teenager).

Example:
I was quite the troublemaker in class; I didn’t really listen. It was kind of just like a forced experience which made me kind of dislike my language I didn’t want to learn it (Korean teenager talking about attending Korean school in Christchurch).

After a trip to a country where the language is spoken

Example:
When I went to France about 6 years ago I found it so much easier to speak French, it was like a switch, it just clicked! Being in that environment made it so much easier, I was so surprised (French teenager).

Example:
When the children have been in Belgium or The Netherlands then they rattle on in Dutch. Then it suddenly all surfaces and they are really fluent. With errors of course. You always hear that they are not really native speakers. They are obviously English speakers, but fluent after just two weeks (Dutch mother).

When a child finds their own motivation to use the language (this often goes hand in hand with a reflection on their upbringing)

Example:
It’s not until I started to get to know more Korean friends that I started becoming more happy with how I was brought up, and how my mum and dad used Korean with me in a way that I kind of just grew up and I’m able to speak Korean and I don’t remember. I’m quite happy with it, I don’t remember the struggles or anything I’m just able to speak it and it’s quite free flowing (Korean teenager).

Example:
My parents cannot speak English fluently, so they only speak Chinese at home. And we used to go to a Chinese church, where the people would only speak Chinese. Therefore, I became aware that I had to learn Chinese in order to communicate with others (Chinese teenager).

Helpful links for predicting and coping with critical moments: