Saturday 5 November 2011

“Invisible” but actively present: immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism
=Guest post=

by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή)

We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only

«Ηρθαμε σε ένα κράτος να ζήσουμε όμως όχι και να μείνουν τα παιδιά μας «στα γκαβά» με μία γλώσσα»

Immigrant parents’ language perspectives and practices play a very important role to language maintenance and the intergenerational transmission of language, which is a basic factor for the encouragement of bilingualism. Quoting Fishman (1991:113), “that which is not transmitted cannot be maintained”. Internationally, language shift to the majority language has emerged as a sociolinguistic phenomenon which takes place rapidly, since research data reveal that the moment immigrant children enter kindergarten, they tend to present a change in their linguistic behavior, using the majority language increasingly. Thus, in most cases of children of immigrants today, who attend mainstream primary schools, the second language is developed at the cost of the first, gradually replacing it and becoming the children’s dominant language, since it takes up a dominant place in their linguistic use and proficiency. On the other hand, the children’s home language is not recognized or valued in the school context.

How do immigrant parents perceive the issue of language maintenance in relation to school language learning? How do they interpret broader monolingual ideologies and consequently deal with their children’s bilingualism at home? The discussion on issues of bilingualism of minority language children and language school learning is usually dominated by the academic, scientific and educational discourse, whereas immigrant parents’ own voices and perspectives are absent. The invisibility of minority children’s bilingualism also extends to the invisibility of their parents’ language views and practices within the school context, who are perceived and constituted as an “absent” group by dominant school ideologies and practices. Listening to immigrant parents’ voices concerning their children’s bilingualism and studying their own language ideologies and practices, as they are constructed and enacted in interaction with the dominant ideologies, can help us examine the ways school language practices affect the children’s language behavior. There are powerful messages to be heard, concerning the value of languages and the shaping of parents’ language views and practices too.

I have carried out an ethnographic study on the language views and practices of Albanian immigrant parents, whose children attend the mainstream Greek primary school, for my doctoral dissertation, which I am currently completing at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Drawing on my data, it emerges that the way the parents perceive and act upon their children’s bilingualism is directly related to dominant school practices and ideologies, to which they respond in different ways. Immigrant parents perceive and report the fact that their children choose to speak the Greek language more and more in their everyday language use. They also report the gradual decrease of the children’s communicative skills in their home language, which begins to take place as soon as they enter the Greek school, and they express, at the same time, the importance of language maintenance and the encouragement of bilingualism.

In addition, the children’s lack of literacy in the Albanian language emerges as an issue that appears to concern and puzzle them, since some of them claim their right to have the Albanian language spoken and taught in the Greek school educational system. On the other hand, the teachers’ language views regarding the children’s bilingualism and the use of the Albanian language in the school context play a powerful role in shaping the parents’ attitudes and bring about dilemmas and confusion. Immigrant parents experience conflicts and ambivalence concerning the extent to which they can fight for their language rights and encourage the use and learning of the minority language in relation to their children’s academic development. The teachers’ common advice “don’t speak Albanian at home” toward immigrant parents and “don’t speak Albanian in class” to their children brings these parents face to face with dilemmas, since they struggle to balance between their duty to support their children’s school language learning and their duty (and right) to speak and maintain their home language.

Through the views of these immigrant parents concerning their children’s bilingualism and the importance of first language maintenance, a sense of anxiety emerges for the future course of their language and the ability of their children to function in it. The teachers’ language views and practices have a powerful presence in the parents’ discourse concerning the children’s bilingualism, which reveals the influence of school ideologies and calls on us all, who belong to the field of education and bilingualism, to take into serious consideration the language views and attitudes of bilingual children and their parents.

International conference “Crossroad of languages and cultures: Learning beyond the classroom”,
8-10 April 2011, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, organized by Polydromo.

Closing, as I started, with Anastasia’s resistant voice, an Albanian immigrant mother who has lived for 14 years in Greece, we argue for the importance of listening to immigrant parents in order to encourage the minority children’s bilingualism and strive for a pluralistic education and society:
“This is what is best for our children, the more languages you learn, the better. But you can’t forget your own language, like us, we came here and our children forgot our language. It is not right what we do. We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only. I don’t throw this language here down, but I count our language too.”
Allowing space for the children’s home languages in the school context and letting their bilingualism emerge and flourish, includes creating connections with their home context in order to give “voice” to their parents’ language views and empower their role in supporting their children’s language development.

Anastasia Gkaintartzi is an English language teacher in Greece. She holds an MA in pedagogy and is currently completing her PhD in the Department of Early Childhood Education of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, focusing on sociolinguistic and educational issues of bilingualism. Her research interests include bilingualism and minority children education, language ideology and multiculturalism. She is also a member of Polydromo, a group dedicated to bilingualism and multiculturalism in education and society. 

© Anastasia Gkaintartzi 2011

Next post: Balancing (f)acts. Wednesday 16th November 2011.


  1. what a great post. since moving back to the States after having lived in Croatia for 18 months I have noticed my 3 1/2 daughter speaking English 100% of the time versus none only 6 months ago! While I'm very proud that she has grasped the English language so quickly I can't help but feel frustrated that she doesn't speak Spanish nor Croatian at home. While I understand that she spends the majority of her day hours in daycare, I wish as a parent that she could 'switch' to speaking her other native tongue(s) at home. After reading this article I'm considering if a bilingual daycare/preschool will be a better option for my daughter.

  2. Anastasia Gkaintartzi9 November 2011 at 19:21

    Elisa, thank you for sharing your personal experience and concern about your child's bilingualism. It seems natural to me that she speaks English more, since she is exposed to this language many hours a day. I believe that exposing her to input in the two other languages would be helpful, eg. through your own code-switching at home or through bilingual material (books, dvds)to support her bingualism and help her to activate her languages. A bilingual daycare or preschool, I think, would encourage the child's bilingual development and help her develop her languages more fully. It would be a better option than a monolingual school environment. Above all, it is important that you value and care for your child's bilingualism and that your positive attitudes are transmitted to your child.Keep on!

  3. As a kindergarten ESL teacher, many parents ask what the teachers opionion is of when they can speak their native language. It is sad to read and know that "The teachers’ common advice “don’t speak Albanian at home” toward immigrant parents and “don’t speak Albanian in class”" is unfortunately more of the common response to a second language. I would encourage and support my parents in their struggles to keep their native language alive often bringing research articles in to support the importance of maintaining both languages. Also, displaying the children's languages in our classroom. As a parent trying to raise bilingual children, it is a challenge, but worth all the effort.

  4. Anastasia Gkaintartzi1 December 2011 at 01:43

    Dear Amanda, thank your for showing us that there are teachers who do have knowledge, awareness, and sensitivity concerning the issue of immigrant children's bilingualism.I really believe that teachers can value and encourage multiligualism in their classrooms through their practices, attitudes and their disourse toward immmigrant students and their parents, by bridging the gap and forming collaborative relations with them. Unfortunately,the common advice to speak the majority language at home is
    evident worldwide and not only in Greece. You may find this article interesting: Lee, S. J & Oxelson, E (2006) “It’s Not My Job”: K–12 Teacher Attitudes Toward Students’ Heritage Language Maintenance. Bilingual Research Journal, 30: 2, 453-477.However, I still believe that there are many teachers like you who are willing to expose and encourage minority languages in their claasrooms.The project presented in this article: Helot, C. & Young, A. (2002).Bilingualism and language education in French primary schools: Why and how should migrant languages be valued? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism5(2),96–112, is a very good example of encouraging bilingualism in class.

  5. How so true! I shudder thinking about how I would confront the situation when my 5 (going on 6) year old will start school next year. As the only bilingual person in the family and the neighborhood who speaks my native language with my kids, I can't deny feeling under a degree of siege and feel really confronted by it all. Your article captures that conflict coherently. Thank you!

  6. “Anonymous”: please don’t worry. I went through a similar situation to the one you describe, being the only person speaking my language to my children in the different countries where we’ve lived over several years. School authorities and medical doctors regularly told me I was dooming my children to academic underachievement, among other scary things, by “refusing” to use the school’s mainstream language with them, but I knew I wasn’t. So do expect misinformation from similar quarters, but be assured that it is misinformation.

    This blog is here for you. Come back to us any time, if you feel we can lend you the support that you need. I hope you will.



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