There is ongoing debate among migrant African parents in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. regarding the use of English language instead of individuals’ indigenous languages when talking to children at home. The question is whether the use of more than one language has a negative impact in the child’s wider communication skills development.
Those who opt to communicate with their children in the English language argue that using parents’ native language interferes with a child’s learning of the English language. On the other hand there are those who dispute that a child’s ability to learn the English language is compromised by being spoken to in their parents’ native language when they are in the company of their parents or fellow ‘countrymen’. No extensive and/ or objective study has been carried out yet to provide a body of evidence that supports either argument.
Notwithstanding the absence of researched evidence, I think a look at immigrant families from South Asia, China and Japan will indicate that the majority of the parents use their native languages within households yet their children not only speak English but adopt local accents too. Yes the influence of immigrant families’ languages is often apparent and there are thus distinctive accents among different communities; this is however, not exclusive to immigrant communities.
The argument, among African immigrants, that speaking to children in the parents’ native language interferes with their ability to learn to speak the English language maybe a poor excuse by individuals who mistakenly view English as a superior language and a measure of intelligence than a mere communication tool. There are parents, especially Africans, who take pride in their children speaking ‘perfect’ English and being unable to communicate in the first language of their parents. What is the ‘perfect’ or standard accent? Times have changed maybe three or so decades ago there was a superior accent or accents but there is no evidence of that now; people are generally comfortable in their accents.
Not all African immigrants have a good command of the English language yet the majority of them will feel obliged to teach their children. If anything, I think it would be more beneficial in the development of the child’s communication skills if a parent spoke in a language that they (parent) were familiar with. Learning to communicate in whichever language is fundamental in the child establishing and understanding relationships with other people as well as with the surroundings. I also believe once acquired, communication skills are in most cases easily transferable from one language to another.
I will even question the input of African parents in their children’s learning to speak in English. I argue that the majority of Africans living in the English speaking West spend much of their time at work so, generally spend very little time with their children. Furthermore, in typical African households, parents (particularly fathers) do not tend to hold long sustained conversations with their children. Parents normally talk among themselves and mostly in their native language with English being reserved for the children.
If parent influence was significant why is it that children of African immigrants will speak in local accents and not those of their parents? Funny enough children can make impressions of their own parents which suggests an ability to learn and make clear distinctions between both the parents’ native language or English accent and the local English accent. This further puts into question the impact of or perceived interference of parents’ native language in the child’s learning of the spoken English language. I think that the best way of children learning the language is through effective interaction with children for whom English is the primary language.
A language goes beyond just the verbal communication, there are gestures/signs used that an African parent may not even be familiar with and thus will not pass onto their child. The link of a language to the culture of its users cannot be underestimated and that cannot be imparted by immigrant parents but the child learns subconsciously through social interaction with locals. It is not surprising that children learn the local body language (gestures) and that is obviously not from their parents but the native speakers of the language. African parents can be handy in teaching their children the written language but the spoken language is hugely learned from the broader social interaction process.
If speaking one’s native language handicapped people from learning a second language then African immigrant parents would not have learned the English they speak now. The African parents who use English to speak to their children should accept that theirs is a lifestyle choice motivated by reasons other than the mere desire to enable their children to learn the English language. I believe the most beneficial practice is affording children an opportunity to participate in children’s activities in the local communities. Children get the chance to learn (above the spoken language) local culture and that makes them more culturally aware and relatively easy to integrate into the mainstream society.