Language is an important aspect of our cultural identity. As immigrants, being able to keep our native languages alive by passing them on to our children is a source of great pride. It is also a way for some of us to demonstrate that despite our physical displacement, we remain culturally grounded in our communities of origin. However, sometimes our children are not ready or willing to speak our languages. In this case, there is no greater source of frustration for the immigrant parent. Because I work in the educational field, I often have these conversations with students whose parents are immigrants from different parts of the world, and many acknowledge that they refrain from speaking their parents’ native languages in public because they do not want to come across as different to their peers. This is the reason why some children may be comfortable speaking their parents’ native language at home, but in public, would respond to their parents in English only. I have seen this in the Senegalese immigrant communities I have interacted with. I have also observed that some parents, because they are eager to claim the American experience, or fear that their children will speak English with a foreign accent, choose to not teach their mother tongue to their children. I belong in the first group.
I enjoy speaking Wolof to my children, especially in public because I want them to have a sense of pride in their cultural identity. I also think that it is very important to know more than one language. Before I had children, I imagined them to be trilingual like their parents, speaking Wolof, French and English. But it turns out that on a daily basis, we use only English and Wolof in our household. In an earlier post, I have shared how I don’t care much for the French language. Since relocating to the US, my usage of French is mostly limited to reading and the occasional conversation. Of course, there are some words I only say in French because they have been adopted into the Wolof language. For example we still use “ça va?” to greet each other. But teaching French to my children was not an imminent goal. I however was determined that my children would be fluent in Wolof. I spent a considerable amount of time researching multiple strategies that would make it possible for us to raise bilingual children. While there are several studies on how to teach children multiple languages, they all agree that the best way is that each parent would exclusively speak one language to the child. For example if parents wanted to teach their children Wolof, French, and English. One parent would speak only Wolof to the child while the other would speak only French. Then when parents are speaking between themselves, they would use English. I have seen this work out great for a family that I know.
In my case, I set out to speak only Wolof to my children but I did not realize how hard it would be to stick to it. I switched languages throughout my life going to school in French and English and then speaking Wolof at home. Doing the same with my children turned out to be a challenge. I spoke mostly Wolof to my first child and it worked out ok. She understands pretty much everything and with few trips to Senegal, manages to express herself in the language, most times. She also is curious about expressions she does not know and often takes the initiative to speak Wolof. I was not as lucky with my second child. Although he often undertands what I mean, he doesn’t attempt to speak, unless he wants to make fun of me by repeating everything I say to him. This frustrates me because I know it is my fault that he is not as fluent as his sister. I must have changed my approach and spoke predominantly English to him. It could also be that he went to daycare earlier than his sister and was therefore exposed to an English-only environment at a critical moment in language acquisition. In any case, something different happened in the ways languages were introduced to the two of them. Knowing this, I decided to speak only Wolof to my third child. Although I could tell that he understood most of what I said, I could not see any signs of him speaking the language, mainly because he is still very young to have an elaborate speech. But since he’s been going to daycare, I noticed that he was trying to utter English words in his babbling. I was getting alarmed that my linguistic efforts were vain. So one can imagine how thrilled I was few days ago, when he started telling people: “Kaay, kaay!” [Come here, come here!], gesturing with his fingers in the manner one would summon a person!
Some linguists argue that when children are taught multiple languages simultaneously, they tend to take longer speaking because they are trying to process and separate them before beginning to talk in either language. Maybe this is what is happening with my third child. Other experts suggest that there are three windows when the child’s mind is more open to learning a second, third, or even fourth language. The optimal window is at the time when the child is learning their first language, which is from birth to three years of age. The second window is between ages two and seven, and the last window is between ten and thirteen. This gives me hope that all is not lost for my second child, provided I break my habit of speaking English to him.
Please share your experiences and tips.