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Language tiers

Back when I was reading up about bilingual parenting, I found one book that wrote about the importance of understanding which tier your languages fall into. It went on to explain that you might find your language incredibly important to teach your child, but your outside environment decides how valuable those languages are. I tend to think that each country has its own tier system. This judgement of value will dictate how many teaching resources are available, how well you yelling across the playground in that language is accepted (but you should always do it anyway!) and how much support you receive in your teaching endeavors. Language tiers should not influence whether or not you choose to impart your beautiful language, but it can make a huge difference for any parent teaching a minority language (as well as the child, who obviously will never remain unaffected). For reasons beyond my control, Welsh or Basque are deemed to be less prestigious than teaching your children French or German. (Note: Some languages will inevitably fall outside of the tier ranking out of pure ignorance. I’m thinking Faroese, Sarsi, Njerep but some might think the same of languages as widespread as Urdu or Polish). My linguist’s heart bleeds when faced with these realities. I definitely believe that any second language is an invaluable gift to the plasticity of a child’s brain, his mind and cultural upbringing: no matter if it is Wolof or Mandarin.

Back to language tiers. The more I converse in public with Ayo, the more I realize how lucky I am to be starting off by teaching him French. I often contemplate the uphill battle that is teaching an infant a minority language, but I have yet to come across rude remarks or “SPEAK ENGLISH!” sorts of comments. If anything, cashiers, postal clerks and playground parents test out their “bone-djor” and “o-voi”s. It’s pretty sweet. There is a lot of power in that. Based on these reactions, I feel confident to speak (not whisper) to Ayo in French in public. This, in turn, hopefully sends Ayo the message that speaking this language outside the home should never be reason for embarrassment. Compare this to immigrants in your country speaking their mother-tongue(s), the reactions they might receive and how often they have been reticent as a result to cultivate their language at home.

In America – specifically in the city – French comes with a few advantages of language resources like the Alliance Française (20 steps from our garage door), an [unaffordable] private immersion school, a few opportunities for French playdates and several ‘French for kids’ classes. We still live in what I would call a medium-sized American city, so there isn’t exactly a wealth of French resources by any means, but it could be way worse. Being one year old opens up lots of doors, too. Today, we went to a free trial French class for 1-3 year olds. I know at least three places that offer such classes. This one, funny enough, was taught by a gal from one of my adoptive hometowns: Geneva! We sang songs, played with puppets, read a book, played with stickers and ate…ehem..played with play-dough in French. Of course, I could have done all these things myself at home with Ayo in perfect French, yet such a big part of language acquisition is hearing other people (especially peers) speak your language. Thanks to the tier our language falls into, resources like these are available to us here, so why not take advantage of them, especially if they are free! You meet parents with the most interesting stories along the way.

If you speak a minority language with your children, do you have a sense of how accepted your language is? Have you ever received comments (positive or negative) about the language you are teaching your children? If so, how has that affected you and how openly you speak with your child in that language? If you think you speak a less popular language, where do you access relevant language resources in your language? What are some ways you have chosen to educate the world around you about your language?

11 thoughts on “Language tiers

  1. Have thought about that topic especially speaking German to our boy in the USA. I know post WWII lots of German immigrants didn’t feel comfortable bringing their kids up billingual. So I feel fortunate that things have changed 🙂 Now I find people looking at us with curiousity saying it is so amazjng that your son grows up billingual. Just wonder how the reaction would be if I were Latina speaking Spanish to my boy.

    1. That same book uses the example of Spanish in the United States. While I don’t think we can say that Spanish is received badly by the majority of Americans, it does trigger stronger negative emotions for some. But again, if I spoke Spanish growing up instead of French, negative reactions would definitely bog me down but I would still speak it proud and loud…at least try as much as possible. Any second language is a priceless gift! And anyway, you have to do what is best for your child, even when you get the most negative of reactions.

  2. I’ve had no rude comments! Same as you when i’m in a public place and Maylène answers says something in english, they try to talk to her in english.
    I’ve actually had only positive comments, saying it’s going to be positive for her later on, and what makes me laugh is that my inlaws try speaking to her in english also 😉 !
    We’ll see when she starts school…

  3. Great post, thanks for raising an important factor in second language transmission. The tier system is crucial when you are an immigrant from an ex-colony (Arabic in French, Indian languages in England).
    I am fully aware that had we been in France, it would have been harder to feel fully at ease to speak (not whisper) Arabic, given the language tier there.

    1. Really interesting thought about ex-colonies, Souad. I totally agree based on xenophobic reactions I have witnessed first-hand in various places around the world. It is all the more perplexing to me to observe this phenomenon in international megacities like London in our present day. As for Arabic in France, I would agree, even though I was raised in a city that was heavily populated by Moroccans and Algerians. There, Arabic was much more acceptable and “cool” than French.

  4. What a very important post! You are so right, as a Polish native speaker I can tell you that Polish isn’t considered a valuable language, at least not in countries like Germany or the Netherlands. It’s very sad that some languages are considered less valuable than others! I don’t care and speak Polish in public and at home because I don’t want my children to think that speaking Polish is something to be embarassed about. but yes, it’s harder than it owuld be if I spoke English, French or even German.

    1. Dear Olga, thanks for leaving a comment! I love that you are pressing on with Polish regardless of reactions around you. In places like Germany or the Netherlands, I wonder if there isn’t a socio-economic classification of languages in the minds of the monolingual natives. When I lived in Germany, I remember a time when local “friends” looked down on Turkish speakers as just the lowly Döner-Kebab owners, garbage collectors and nannies. Almost like they were lucky to live there. It ripped my heart out to see this sense of entitlement of the rich kid, who has never taken the time to understand the stories behind these peoples’ lives and in so doing, missing out completely on a whole cultural world available to them without even travelling!

  5. Great post! I think about this quite a bit and observe the language tier at work among my friends raising bilingual kids too. Arabic (our kids second language) is definitely not an esteemed language, like what you say about Polish Olga. My husband has mentioned to me that especially after some negative news story about Arabs or Muslims, people will stare at him like he has 10 heads when he speaks Arabic out and about with the kids. I think this tiering applies to not just languages but cultures generally. French and France are a language and culture Americans hold in high regard. Most Americans have a very positive view of it. Arabic and Arab countries are held in really low regard, and even more than that are seen very negatively.

    1. Stephanie, I echo whole-heartedly the fact that the classification trickles down to cultures in general. Do you think this will ever change and what will change the way Arabic is viewed? I think of Mandarin, for example and how it was once viewed as an outcast language (one of factory workers of our outsourced cheap goods)…and how many Western parents today are racing to get their kids to learn Mandarin to be competent in the future of business…

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