Losing Language: The Subtle Epidemic

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Losing Language: The Subtle Epidemic
By Ana Paula G. Mumy
Photo credit: Vincepal

Even though I’ve lived in the United States for 25 years, not speaking to my children in my native language (Portuguese), was never an option that even crossed my mind.  When I began this journey of simultaneous bilingualism with my children, I believed my determination that they be bilingual was common among parents in bilingual families.

To my dismay, however, I am finding that globally, parents who pass down their native language to their children are in the minority if  the language of the community is different, especially when the majority language is a highly esteemed language such as English.  In my mind, this reality is creating an epidemic of language loss, and here are the three primary reasons why I find this is a subtle yet harmful epidemic.

The native language is the language of bonding.  The native language (which is most often the dominant language) is the language in which parents are able to share their affection, their emotions, their feelings, their opinions.

It’s extremely difficult to deeply share your heart in a language in which you are not dominant or confident.  In order to instruct, to correct and discipline, to instill character, to praise and encourage, to express humor, to share sorrows, to share victories, one must be able to dominate the language in which all of these are communicated. 

An iBook entitled Mother-Baby Bond: The Biology of Love, by theVisualMD.com, states: “Ultimately, all bonds are built on the cornerstone of communication.  The fundamental bond between mother and child is the result of an ongoing conversation conducted on multiple levels, from the physiological to the emotional, cognitive, and social.”

One study by Nancy McElwain and colleagues (C. Booth-LaForce, J. Lansford, X. Wu, and J. Dyer), in the journal of Child Development, shows that “children who were securely attached to Mom at age three showed more open emotional communication with mothers and better language ability at age four and a half.”

Dr. Deepak Chopra, renown physician and author, states: “When a mother is bonding with her baby, all of the elements of mother-infant bond are mediated through biology: the smell, the skin-to-skin contact, the facial expressions, eye movements, body language, the kissing, the cooing, the cuddling, the tone of the mother’s voice, the baby talk.  This is all part of the orchestration of bonding between the mother and the baby.”

The take-home point here is, effective and bond-forming communication must occur in the language in which the parent is most comfortable, dominant, and confident.

The native language is the language of competent input by the parent.  The native language is the language which parents are able to effectively foster and stimulate since their vocabulary, grammar structure, intonation patterns that define meaning, and so on will be strongest and most complex in their native language.

The native language is the language of connection.  The native language is the language that keeps families connected across generations.  When living in a different culture, many extended family members don’t speak the majority language of the new culture.  If the native language is not reinforced, chasms are formed between family members because of language loss.  Imagine the sorrow of a grandmother being unable to communicate with her long-awaited grandchild!

So how do we fight this epidemic?  Let’s educate parents (and professionals) and reassure them that the native language is extremely important!  And let’s invest all our resources to promote native language use at home and its growth among bilingual families!

(This post originally appeared on The Speech Stop)

Ana Paula G. Mumy is a mother of two bilingual children and a trilingual speech-language pathologist, the author of various multilingual leveled storybooks and instructional therapy materials for speech/language intervention, as well as the co-author of her latest eSongbook which features children’s songs for speech, language and hearing goals. She has provided school-based and pediatric home health care services for nearly 12 years and thoroughly enjoys providing resources for SLPs, educators and parents on her website The Speech Stop.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil March 24, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Thank you for the informative and thought-provoking article.

“The take-home point here is, effective and bond-forming communication occur in the language in which the parent is most comfortable, dominant, and confident.”

Like many multi-linguals who express some things differently in different languages, I would like suggest an slightly different perspective:

“The take-home point here is, effective and bond-forming communication … [can] … occur in the language[s] in which the parent [are] comfortable, [communicative], and confident.”


2 Phil March 24, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Sorry – hit send by accident before checking then discovered I couldn’t edit my comment.

Like many multi-linguals who express some things differently in different languages, I would like to* suggest an slightly different perspective:

“The take-home point here is, effective and bond-forming communication … [can] … occur in the language[s] in which the parent[s]* [are] comfortable, [communicative], and confident.”


3 Ana Paula G. Mumy March 25, 2013 at 8:45 am

I absolutely agree that some words, certain expressions, specific idioms, and so forth are better expressed in one language of a multilingual versus another. As a trilingual individual, however, I would say that I have a most dominant language or languages (English, Portuguese), and I am able to express myself and my heart to my children much more effectively in those languages than my third language (Spanish).

The crux of the article is that for various reasons, many parents are opting to speak to their children in languages they don’t speak well, or don’t feel confident in or comfortable with, and in my experience as a speech-language pathologist, this is creating chasms between children and parents, between children and extended relatives, sometimes to the point where they are becoming like strangers in their own homes, only able to communicate about very basic things – superficial conversation at best, but no longer being able to share deep matters of the heart due to the language barrier. So as a professional and a mother, my heart goes out to these families, therefore my goal is to highlight the importance of the native language and encourage native language use.


4 Phil March 25, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful reply, sharing your experiences and insights.


5 Corey March 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Dear readers – please note that when the article was originally published, I somehow accidentally omitted the second paragraph (see above – it has now been added). I had wanted to emphasize it in its own paragraph (since it is so important to this article) and instead somehow deleted it! Argh!

My apologies to Ana Paula Mumy!! I hope everyone will take a few minutes to reread it with that second paragraph added since it is truly the crux of this article’s focus.

Thank you again Ana Paula Mumy for sharing your personal and professional wisdom with Multilingual Living and the world!

Corey Heller


6 Phil March 25, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Thank you for adding that. Yes, it is definitely important and re-reading the article, helps to frame things more clearly now.

The other contexts in which is is difficult is where English is a foreign language and the dominant language is not the native language of one or both parents. For example, a family with one Brazilian parent and one Japanese parent living in Japan with children going to school may get the message, “Forget about Portugese. Your children need to focus on Japanese so that they can communicate or else they won’t be able to get even a basic job.” This can be in stark contrast to a family with one English-speaking parent, who may get the same message to forget about English, but might also get the message, “Wow, that’s great! You’re children will be bilingual!”

This is has huge implications for identity and how children feel about their native language(s), and how peers value them. It’s not uncommon for some children to then reject and rebel against a minority language that is deemed inferior or of less value, and so I hope that your message reaches more people and raises the understanding among the general populace.


7 Peter April 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Interesting post. There is also a large debate on the links between the erosion of language diversity and acculturation ans loss of cultural identity. According to few authors, the loss of a language corresponds also to the loss of another way to see the world.


8 Sandra May 25, 2013 at 8:14 pm

I am struggling with this issue right now. My husband’s native language is French and mine is English. He also speaks English fluently whereas I can only “get by” in French. Right now we only speak to/with our son in French. My husband’s parents are so scared that our kids will not be able to speak fluent French that they have practically forbade me to speak to our son in English. I feel so lost and disconnected because I can’t communicate everything that I want to in French. I can’t express my heart and my personality is almost lost too. I feel like I need to communicate in my native tongue. I stay at home with our son and my husband isn’t home much (and when he is he doesn’t take much of an interest in communication) so I am scared that if I start conversing in English he will lose interest in French. I’m so unsure of what to do. Has anyone else ever been in this situation?


9 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Sandra – I am not familiar with your family dynamics or with your relationship with your in-laws. You also did not specify the age of your child and whether the community language is French or English, but I will attempt to offer some guidance based on my own experience.

My situation is different but I feel a bit of my story is similar. My family immigrated from Brazil to the US when I was 10 years old. None of us spoke English, and my parents were in their late 40s/early 50s. Because my siblings and I had a solid first language foundation (Portuguese), and because we were immersed in English schools right away, we learned English very quickly, but my parents lagged behind. They took ESL classes and did what they could, but it took them nearly 10 years to really feel confident in English, and Portuguese is still their default/dominant language even after more than 25 years of living here. Early on, there was quite a bit of outside pressure for us to speak English at home to ensure that we could “keep up” in school and so that we could “help” our parents learn English faster. Thanks to my wise mother, however, we NEVER stopped speaking in Portuguese at home because she did not want us to lose our Portuguese skills, and because she did not want to lose her children! What I mean is, language is about INTERACTION and RELATIONSHIP, and my mom knew that she could not continue to cultivate a close relationship with her children in a language she did not speak well (English). Had she done that, we would have lost our Portuguese and become like strangers in our own home, not being able to relate in deep or complex ways. Even with opposition, as our mother and primary caregiver, she stood her ground and did what was best for us. She refused to accept the “advice” and pressure of those around her. In a nutshell, the burden of responsibility of preserving our heritage and maintaining our native language skills fell primarily on her, and she embraced it even at her own expense (as far as criticism and not learning English herself as quickly). And by the way, we all excelled in our English-speaking schools…our parents’ guidance and support was strong and constant.

Only you know your situation fully, and I can’t foresee the repercussions of you voicing your struggle, but if possible, I would attempt to express to your family the limitations you feel in being able to provide your son the QUALITY language input he NEEDS when you’re attempting to do so in French. Based on your description of “getting by” in French, it appears the only way you’re able to provide him consistent and quality input is in English. Your native language is also likely to be the language of bonding and affection with your son, so being forced to communicate in a manner that feels “unnatural” to you may be a disservice to him.

If you’re living in a French-speaking community, with a solid first language foundation (in English), your son’s propensity to learn a second language (French) with native or near-native proficiency will be high, especially if he’ll be schooled in a French-speaking environment. If you’re in an English-speaking community, you can still pursue ways to give him ample opportunities for French exposure, through play dates with other French-speaking families, through storybooks and children’s shows in French, through regular contact with French-speaking relatives, etc. I hope this is helpful, and good luck!


10 Ben @ Easiest Language Blog May 29, 2013 at 12:36 am

This is a very interesting problem, and it is partially due to the changing world. My grandfather immigrated from The Netherlands, yet Dutch wasn’t spoken to my mother — Simply because the attitude at that time was to assimilate quickly, and give their children the advantage of good English. They just didn’t realize that multilingualism would be an important part of the 21st century.


11 Sandra May 29, 2013 at 11:20 am

Thank you, Ana. Our son is almost 3 and we live in an English community. I guess what I am scared of (and probably my in-laws as well) is that, with the lack of French in our surroundings, if we don’t always speak solely French at home, it will be replaced with English. I am the primary source of French for my son. Emotional and bonding issues aside, is it better to speak a far from perfect French with my kids or speak perfect English? Does anyone else have any experience raising their kids primarily in a language that is not their native tongue?


12 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 30, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Sandra – as a trilingual speech-language specialist and bilingual mother, my recommendation is normally that parents should speak the language they know/speak best because children need quantity and quality language models from their caregivers, including a large diversity of vocabulary words, complex grammatical forms (pronoun usage, verb usage/conjugation, prepositional phrases, complex clauses, etc). If you were a French speaker with even near native proficiency, I would not be as concerned, but your description of your French use so far has been: “get by” and “far from perfect.”

I was thinking of a quote I recently read on Aaron Myers’ site (www.everydaylanguagelearner.com): “You never want to sacrifice your family on the altar of language learning.” If you’re sacrificing your family dynamics, your interactions with your son, your ability to connect with him in deep and meaningful ways, you might reconsider the home language and think of other ways to foster French exposure.

I would also recommend you read one of Corey’s previous posts entitled “Raising Bilingual Children: The Non-Native Gone Astray?” where she details her challenges and lessons learned from attempting to rear her children in her non-native language.


13 Boyan June 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm

A wonderful article, Ana Paula! I completely agree with you. I can just add that some people don’t want to pass their native tongue to their children because of an inferiority complex that their language is not prestigious enough or they talk such a terrible mix of their native language and the language of their immigration destination that it is better for their children not to learn this gibberish. From my personal observations of Bulgarian immigrant families in Canada, where I spent 8 years, only people with excellent education and high determination to speak pure standard Bulgarian without unnecessary English or French words in every sentence, who also expose their children as often as possible to their language manage to teach their kids successfully in Bulgarian. I am sure that the situation is the same with many other languages.
My linguistic situation is also a bit complicated and that’s why I would appreciate your advice. I was born in Bulgaria and Bulgarian is my native tongue but after I graduated my high school, I graduated my university studies in Canada and when I got my PhD, I also worked a bit in the USA, Austria and Spain. This allowed me to accumulate a good number of languages but the two languages I feel most comfortable with and I want to pass on to my children are Bulgarian and English. My wife is Russian. We are moving soon to Russia. We will live in a small town and even though my job will be in English, our communication with her at home is in Russian, since she speaks only Russian and she has only basic Bulgarian and English. She is pregnant with our first child and I started to think about the linguistic acquisition of our child of course. 🙂 I want her to be trilingual: Russian, Bulgarian and English. The issue is the following. My wife will talk to our child in Russian, the community language is also Russian, the grandparents, the kindergarten… everybody will talk to her in Russian, so this language is covered more than enough. Now, the question is how should I proceed with Bulgarian and English?! I plan to talk to our child in Bulgarian and to provide her with Bulgarian songs, books, films, so raising her bilingual in Russian and Bulgarian looks like a doable task, but I also want to introduce English and I don’t know how. Is it a good idea to read some books in English as well and to let her watch some films in English too? I am a non-native speaker of English, though, so I don’t have a native accent. All tips how to proceed with the language acquisition of three languages will be appreciated. 🙂


14 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I’ve seen trilingualism in children work well where the community language is X (let’s say Language 1), the mother’s native language is Y (Language 2), and the father’s native language is Z (Language 3). I am not sure though practically how one parent would consistently present 2 languages WELL as far as the quantity and quality of language exposure and input needed. I’m not saying it’s not possible, it’s just not my experience so I don’t feel I’m 100% qualified to give you worthy recommendations. I definitely recommend that you speak your native Bulgarian though, and maybe once she’s in school you could introduce English as an “elective” of sorts? Would any trilingual families in a similar situation like to chime in with advice?

Though I am trilingual, L1 (Portuguese) and L2 (English) for me were acquired pre-puberty so I have native proficiency in both, but I acquired L3 (Spanish) as a young adult, and because L3 was similar to L1 and I also participated in a language immersion program, I have been able to achieve near-native proficiency in L3. I have chosen, however, NOT to teach my children Spanish yet, because I did not feel I could give them the exposure and input needed in Portuguese if I mixed in Spanish as well, especially because Portuguese is not as readily spoken in parts of the U.S. where I have lived. In other words, I’m already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to maintaining a NEED and MOTIVATION for Portuguese use in my children, so I did not want to add any more contributing factors that would diminish Portuguese. That was my personal decision, but I’m sure others may differ. If my children one day desire to speak Spanish as well, I believe that will be manageable. Most bilinguals have a greater aptitude or propensity for language learning even as adults. The English input for my kids, of course, is overwhelming from my husband, his family, and our community, so no issues there. I know this doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it’s somewhat helpful. 🙂


15 Boyan June 5, 2013 at 8:21 am

Thank you very much Ana Paula! I think that you are completely right. The best way to have symmetrical trilingualism is when you have language 1 of the mother, language 2 of the father and language 3 in the community. This way the child gets used to all three languages in a natural way. However, when you have language 1 of the mother and again language 1 in the community as in my case, things get a bit more complicated. It seems that the best strategy is, as you also advise me, to talk only in Bulgarian to my child and to let my wife talk to her in Russian. Then, I can introduce English with educational films and books when she is 4 or 5. I think that you helped me to find the best answer for myself and to come up with the right strategy! Thank you once again!


16 Ana Paula G. Mumy July 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm

I start this announcement by thanking Corey Heller for this WONDERFUL site that is truly a “light” for multilingual families, guiding and strengthening families in their multilingual (often complicated) lives!

As a result of my personal experiences and as a response to the dozens of questions I have received via this site and email, I am very excited to release “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children”! This guide is written to be an easy read that is extremely practical, covering multiple topics and pressing issues. Available now at http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism.


17 Nicole August 4, 2013 at 1:26 am

Sandra, Not sure if you will see this as you posted a while ago. I speak English to my sons here in Germany and decided with my husband and when they were born that he too would too speak English to them as the amount of German input they would get from being in the country would be very high. I knew English would definitely be the minorit language and based on my own bilingual upbringing, I knew how hard it is to basically battle the majority language to ensure fluency in the minority language (especially once they hit school). My husband was totally up for it but always underlined that he did not consider himself totally fluent and warnes that for more complex topics like explaining scientific things, he would revert to German.

The boys are now 7 and 9 and I am very pleased with their English skills. My husband continues to speak to them in English although he and I still speak German together. He is much more inconsistent nowadays and will at times switch into German with them vs me who literally never does. My point is that this language journey you are on needs both you and your French husband. I don’t believe that you will ruin their French even if it is not perfect – I have known several families who are not native English speakers raising their children bilingually English/German here in Germany. I also think you can bond with your children just as well speaking your non-native language – my husband certainly has. The experience has – if anything – strengthened his English. The deeper conversations with your kids will come when they are older and by then they should have the foundations for French. They will know that you are not a native French speaker – kids realize things like this and it is completely okay. My kids know I did not grow up in Germany and therefore, still don’t know all the children expressions for things – they love explaining idioms that I never heard as a child. Speaking strictly French when they are older is probably something that you simply will not be able to do which is where all the other elements of raising kids bilingually come in: they need to go to France regularly, hang out with other kids who speak French, etc, etc. Your husband must play a strong role in their French language acquisition – it can’t just be you or mainly you.

I know it is tough and I think it is wonderful that you are trying to teach your kids French. Don’t get hung up on how well you express yourself – you are doing them a great service by teaching them the language. At the same time, don’t beat yourself up if you do slip into English now and again – everyone can only do their best in this journey! Good luck!


18 Sandra August 4, 2013 at 1:53 am

Thanks Nicole. This encourages me. I know that my husband’s contribution is very important but I don’t think that he realizes that yet. I am hoping that he will start to take a more active role in communicating. For now, my son and I read everything in French and if we watch tv/movies we choose the French language options, whenever available. This way, I can keep learning too. It is a lot of work, but well worth it. Hopefully we can keep it up.


19 Ana Paula G. Mumy August 4, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Just to clarify, my recommendation for parents using a non-native language with their children is not that they have “perfect” fluency, but that they at least feel comfortable and confident speaking that language for a variety of purposes (i.e. talking, playing, teaching, correcting, etc).

Nicole, you are absolutely right that one parent can’t be the only source of the target language. Since I live in a primarily monolingual society, keeping Portuguese exposure and use ever present in my children’s lives has included finding Brazilian families for outings and play dates, having movies, books and music in Portuguese available for my kids, setting up Skype dates with Portuguese-speaking family members, etc. I could not, however, have asked my English-speaking husband to interact with his own children in a language he did not feel confident in and would have been unnatural to him. His level of Portuguese proficiency, though, is probably much lower than your husband’s level of English proficiency.


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