Tag Archives: immigration

Immigrant Children and Language

 

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.

 

Senamericanly yours,

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The Difficulty of Raising Children in Two Cultures

I recently read an article  where some interviewees stated that raising kids between the cultures of Senegal and America while residing in the US is literally impossible. While I think that it is in fact possible, it is not easy to accomplish.  Parents must constantly negotiate cultural clashes while being sensitive to how confusions can negatively affect children. Most of our SenAmerican homes tend to naturally favor the Senegalese culture. Our attempts to “not lose” our “Senegaleseness” often lead to our children being taught one thing at home, and another at school, making it difficult for them to reconcile both.

Recently, my daughter wrote a list of chores and said that her teacher had told her that she could earn money at home by doing chores. I was shocked that the teacher had the audacity to introduce her to the notion that she could be paid for doing something I believe any responsible member of a family should do and not expect a reward. But I knew that we live in a culture where this is widely practiced, and even applauded. I had to be smart about how I spoke to my daughter about it. After I recovered from my shock, I asked her to come up with a list of all things that mommy does in the home. When we went over five minutes of enumerating “mommy’s chores,” I asked her to pay me a dollar for each item, each time I did it. Her eyes doubled in size as she realized that she could not possibly pay me. I then explained to her that I do what I do because it is my responsibility as a mother and a member of the family, and that each member of the family has a responsibility to the whole. We do it because we love each other and must contribute to the running of the household, not because we want to be paid. I talked to her about having an allowance and that she would get $.50 for every year of her age. I was careful to explain to her that an allowance is not something we owe her, and that it is our way of helping her have money for herself because she is not old enough to have a job! I also think that the idea of allowance helps children learn financial responsibility while giving them some freedom in acquiring things they want.

This strategy worked out quite well but I must confess that I am not always as lucky with parenting young children in America. For example, I am still struggling to teach my kids that mommy and daddy’s room is not a playground, and that when adults are talking a child does not get involved. One of the strengths of the Senegalese model of parenting is that it is often done within an extended family where other adults and sometimes neighbors, contribute to raising children. Children are socialized to know their place. There is a division of space within the home where children understand playing does not happen in bedrooms. While it is possible to teach these rules in America, it is not always easy because of the nuclear family. Many of our homes do not have other adults other than mommy and daddy. We tend to do everything with our kids. Although I love spending as much time as possible with my children, I think that our nuclear families make it difficult to teach them independence within the home.

Another area where I am struggling is extra-curricular activities for kids. Growing up, I played team handball and never expected my parernts to come see me play. In fact, I do not think my mother ever saw me play. She would hear from strangers about what a wonderful player I was but never found it necessary or important to come to one of my games. I have a vague memory of my father coming to one game but I might have dreamed about that. Although I wished that my parents would see me play, it was not the end of the world. I don’t think it did anything to my self-esteem nor did I feel unloved by my parents. In America on the contrary, parents who do not show up at their child’s soccer practice or play recital are seen as bad parents.  It also seems that American parents want their kids to do it all. Kids are engaged in several extra-curricular activities that they often do not like and parents, especially mothers, spend their week chauffeuring them from one place to another. I refuse to buy into this culture and tell my kids to identify one activity and stick to it as long as they like it enough to invest the time in it. My kids are fairly young and their commitment to a sport or instrument is very short. I am sure there will be a time when they would want to do something consistently. Even then, I would insist that they stick to a maximum of two.

The most challenging aspect of parenting in America is the issue of spanking children. In Senegal, spanking is accepted and used as punishment whereas in America, it is frowned upon and parents who practice it are viewed as abusers. I honestly have mixed feelings about this but I have opted to not spank my children. I have never been a fan of the practice but after having kids, I can see why some parents revert to the stick to keep some children in line. My apprehension is about its effectiveness. If the point of corporal punishment is to inflict pain on the child, I believe it can be accomplished with other means such as taking away beloved possessions and other privileges. I don’t however believe that every parent who chooses to spank their child is an abuser because there is spanking and there is beating up a child. The first when practiced necessarily could be fine while the second is abuse.

Parenting in America is difficult because as parents, we too are caught in between two cultures, yet, we must raise children within this space. Knowing how to negotiate these two worlds is not easy but I think it can be done if we pick what we think is positive in each culture and combine them. This requires a lot of work and trying out different strategies. There are many other parenting areas I struggle with such as religion, food, and language, to which I will dedicate entire posts.

I look forward to hearing from parents. Please share your parenting struggles and tips.

SenAmericanly yours.