Like many children of immigrants, growing up without her heritage language was normal for Katarina Daignault. When her Indo-Carribean mother and grandmother immigrated to Canada, they made a decision many do when they immigrate: to let go of the Hindi language and learn English.
Now, at 23 years old, Daignault finally understands the important things she lost along with her mother tongue: a connection to her culture, a sense of belonging and even the confidence to identify as an ethnic woman.
“There’s a big isolation piece. What is being Indo-Carribean? What is being Trinidadian? … I don’t know,” says Daignault. “I feel very isolated from that cultural group.”
Daignault isn’t alone. As a second-generation immigrant who doesn’t speak her heritage language, her story is similar to many others who are born to immigrant families across Canada.
Preserving heritage languages through resources like bilingual school programs can be critical for maintaining immigrants’ ethnic identities. The process for approving those programs in Calgary is complicated and one that requires substantial community support — something many groups might have a hard time garnering.
According to Statistics Canada’s most recent census data, Calgary was home to 404,700 immigrants in 2016, making up approximately 30 per cent of the city’s population. Since 1981, this population has increased by almost 600 per cent.
While this increasing immigrant population means an increase in the number of heritage languages brought into the city, the general trend is that these languages are often lost by the third generation. This causes an incessant cycle of gaining and losing languages.
Evangelia Daskalaki, an assistant linguistics professor at the University of Alberta, says immigrant families are losing their heritage languages faster simply due to limited opportunities to speak those languages.
“If we think about it, immigrant children use the majority language in a variety of contexts, with a variety of speakers, for a variety of purposes,” says Daskalaki. “The use of the heritage language, on the other hand, is more limited both in quantitative and qualitative terms: it is typically used at home with few speakers on topics concerning the everyday routine.”
This can be detrimental — not only to family ties, but to children’s overall wellbeing, says both Daskalaki and Daignault.
Daskalaki says important things, such as being able to tell stories, play, argue and express emotions to their family, are lost when a child is unable to speak their mother tongue. Daignault, who is taking a minor in child psychology and often works with ethnic immigrant children, sees the negative effects of losing heritage languages on a regular basis.
“[My students] discredit that this is their heritage, this is their whole foundation, and the more we learn about children, the more we learn about how important family and cultural identity is,” says Daignault.
Daskalaki stresses that on top of limited opportunities to speak the language, immigrant children don’t always have resources for formal instruction in their heritage language, like bilingual or immersion programs.
To promote heritage language usage, attendance of heritage language schools was top of her list. Her other suggestions consisted of, “Interaction with friends in the heritage language, reading, Skype with relatives in the home country and extra-curricular activities in the heritage language.”
Bilingual programs for language maintenance
University of Alberta alum, June Cheung, focused on this growing issue for her thesis titled, “The Impact of a Bilingual School Program on Generational Heritage Language Loss,” published earlier this year. She worked with 31 Chinese-Canadian immigrants from both second and third generations to learn how bilingual schools impact heritage language abilities.
Her thesis shows that participants who didn’t attend bilingual schools obtained lower scores than those who did attend, something being able to use the heritage language altogether. According to her research, speaking the language regularly at home and attending a bilingual school is the most effective way to strengthen children’s heritage languages and slow the rate of language loss.
Cheung herself is proof of this. As a child, she attended a Mandarin bilingual school in Edmonton and now, as an adult, is able to speak to her family in the language they’re most comfortable speaking.
“It gives you a sense of, okay, this is where I came from. This is part of who I am,” says Cheung.
However, many of Calgary’s immigrant families aren’t so lucky.
Despite having almost double the immigrant population, Calgary is falling behind Edmonton’s bilingual school programs, only offering three languages within the Calgary Board of Education: Mandarin, German and Spanish.
Edmonton’s Public School Board, on the other hand, offers six: American Sign Language, Arabic, Mandarin, German, Hebrew and Spanish.
This is done through the Edmonton school board’s Institute for Innovation in Second Language Education — the first institute of its kind in North America that supports the development of second language education for students. Despite its name, it also supports heritage, international, official, signed and indigenous languages.
Janice Aubry, director of curriculum and resource support at the Edmonton school board, says that although the institute’s bilingual programs are designed for all students, they allow newly arriving immigrant families to successfully develop their heritage language skills and maintain ties to their heritage while also learning English.
“Students in our bilingual programs achieve high levels of language proficiency overall — even students who enter our programs with little or no previous exposure to the language. Students in our bilingual programs also generally achieve well academically.”
Though the institute has shown great success in Edmonton, Calgary does not appear to have made similar steps towards heritage language development.
The Calgary Journal reached out to Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education for Alberta’s government, for comment.
“Our government recognizes the value of offering language programs in schools to enhance learning opportunities for students,” says Colin Aitchinson, Minister LaGrange’s press secretary. “School authorities make decisions regarding offering second language programming based on teacher capacity, resources, as well as community and student choice.”
According to the Calgary school board’s media relations, “This is beyond our mandate to deliver the Alberta Program of Studies. We offer three bilingual programs — Spanish, German and Mandarin.”
CBE’s complicated process
The Calgary school board’s website shows that members of the public can propose alternative programs, including additional bilingual programs, but the process is complicated. It follows a procedure outlined in a provincial government manual that was last updated in 2010.
According to a school board report titled, “Framework for Alternative Programs,” alternative program proposals go through six stages:
– Stage one: proposing a new alternative program
– Stage two: implementing approved programs
– Stage three: sustaining an existing alternative program
– Stage four: expanding an existing alternative program
– Stage five: closing an existing alternative program (if an entire school is being closed, provincial regulations apply)
– Stage six: student registration and transfer
Within a 60-day timeframe, the proposal must go through seven different authorities and departments for review before parents are able to express interest. By the end of the 60 days, a final decision must be made by the chief superintendent of schools, Christopher Usih.
Proposing new alternative programs to the Calgary school board and demonstrating a sufficient demand for the program through enrolments is critical to the implementation of new bilingual school programs. Without it, nothing will change. Because of this, substantial community support is crucial.
This community support may be lacking in Calgary, according to Daignault. Drawing upon her experience with immigrant families, she says this could be due to the shame immigrants may feel because they do not speak perfect English. For many newly-arrived immigrants, this shame often causes them to focus more on learning English than maintaining their mother tongue.
“I tutored English for years for high school students and they were willing to give up their heritage language to speak English well,” says Daignault.
This is often the reality, even for her own family — her grandmother was the last generation to speak Hindi fluently as a result of going to missionary school to learn English to immigrate successfully.
“My grandmother was told not to speak Hindi ever, so why would she teach her grandkids? Why would she teach her own children? ‘English is the best language. It is where you’re going to get places in life.’”
Cheung says that this is where strong communities can come in to combat the problem.
“Communities are where language and culture and diversity are able to grow and to be shared,” says Cheung. “I think if you have those factors then people are more curious about other languages, people are more likely to share their own language or to be more proud of their own language and to have those chances to keep the language alive.”
Not only will this allow immigrants to be proud of where they came from, but it can give further generations opportunities to speak their heritage languages more regularly.
Confidence and pride in speaking heritage languages is crucial to maintaining them past three generations of immigration to Canada. Cheung says that to do so, it’s important for new immigrants to speak their mother tongues at home without worrying about their child learning English.
“The research shows that you should speak to your child in the language you feel most comfortable in because that way you can give them really rich language exposure, especially if your English isn’t great,” says Cheung. “If you try to speak to your child just in English, they won’t get that same richness of language they would get if you were speaking to them in a language you’re more fluent in.
Editor: Sofia Gruchalla-Wesierski | firstname.lastname@example.org