Sometimes learning a language, or getting your kids to learn, is an uphill struggle. Not only is there a new set of vocabulary, different grammar, and sometimes a whole new script to learn, but also we have a million people telling us we’re doing it wrong, or even that we’re learning the wrong language. For many people though, the language to learn isn’t a choice- we learn what our parents speak. Sometimes it’s a mainstream language, but often it isn’t- maybe one parent speaks a dialect, or has 2 languages, one of which is a minority. How do we decide which is the most important for our children to learn?
If you look online, newspapers and other websites spout the financial gains behind many of the “bigger” languages. But how important is it to you that the languages that your child speaks are “valuable” in the job market in the future? Does it matter that a language is not an official language or that it is only spoken by a relatively small group of people? The neurological advantages of learning any additional languages, plus the cultural wealth that languages and dialects bring are rewards in themselves. The usability in future is, or should only be, a positive side effect, but our society is insanely success oriented.
One of the key points of raising children bilingual is so that they can identify with their origins, either culturally or language wise. If the language is a dialect then so be it. “Language and dialect are ambiguous terms” (Haugen, 1966) A friend of mine speaks English and Mandarin, and his grandmother (now dead) only spoke a Chinese dialect. He said they somehow managed to communicate with one another but he was never able to really connect with her and learn about her past or her story. He now feels a sense of regret and a loss of part of his heritage.
There are indeed people who argue that the local language should be ignored, and there is no need to learn it as your children could communicate in another official language. For example, in Barcelona, where some friends live, and where the local language is Catalan, some Spanish speakers argue feverishly that they are not supposed to learn the “dialect” (they call it dialect, although it is a language!), as there is no need for it. This makes no sense, as the culture and identity cannot be understood without understanding and appreciating the language. The language is more than the combination of words, and sentences. It entails some fascinating cultural and historical nuances, that you can never appreciate if you do not understand or speak it.
Besides the key reason of family origins, there are other reasons for learning a minority language or dialect. It breaks the ice with native speakers who appreciate the effort made. As Mandela said: “without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.” Taking the effort to learn a minority language is an acknowledgement of the value of a subordinated culture, and an implicit display of respect. Not everyone will want to take their place under the umbrella of a super language, and will be in their comfort zone in the language of the culture they inherited. Therefore, if you really want to get your views across, or bring your ideas and opinions to the table, the safest way of earning someone’s trust and attention is through their own language.
Some popular common misconceptions about dialects:
- Dialects are structurally inferior to languages, lacking formal grammatical rules and standards of speaking;
- Dialects are communicatively inferior to languages, lacking the full range of expressibility found in formal languages;
- Dialects are orthographically inferior to languages, lacking their own system of writing;
FACT: Everyone speaks a dialect.
80 : the estimated number of dialects among China’s 56 ethnic groups.
31 : the number of endangered languages in Italy.
20 : the number of British dialects which are now extinct.
Over the last few years in the UK there has been a resurgence of interest in dialect and lots of people are realising that if you don’t use it, you lose it – literally. A language is only kept alive if people speak it, so it might be acceptable to say that if you CAN speak it then you have a duty to pass it on. Plus the benefits of having another language (albeit a dialect) always outweigh any short-term disadvantages. In Britain minority languages are making a resurgence- Welsh, Gaelic and even Cornish (I say even, not because it’s a ridiculous idea, but because it really is only spoken by a handful of people now) are being learnt again. The actual usage of minority languages is very slow to change, but hearts and minds can be quicker. The visibility of UK minority languages seems to have rocketed, and there’s been a burgeoning interest in both localism, and genealogy – people want to know what their great-grandparents spoke. There has also been a raft of language acts, enshrining rights for speakers of minority languages in law, while our understanding of the benefits of bilingualism has prompted a sea-change in the educational arguments.
What’s the difference between formal Italian and most Italian dialects? Or English rhyming slang, patois in Jamaica? If the languages are similar then the kids eventually learn when and who it is appropriate to speak dialect with and when they need to speak the formal language with. Children can and do learn similar languages or dialects and keep them separate. The great thing is that whatever you choose, your children will be lucky enough to be brought up in more than one language. Whether that language is mainstream or minority, dialect or patois, it will have the same neurological benefits.