Started in 1999, February 21st marks International Mother Language Day. International Mother Language Day highlights the important role that language plays in transmitting and preserving knowledge and culture. Our lab, we have been honoured to work alongside with parents, often mothers, to support the transmission of their language.Language is so much more than an ability or a skill– it is an essential part of creating a sustainable ecosystem for a multicultural and multilingual society.
We hear this message over and over again in conversations with families and community partners. This past Fall, our team (thank you Negin and Maya!) spent Friday evenings with 7 moms and their children to support, celebrate and empower the transmission of Kurdish. The language was shared in stories, songs, and games – children felt proud to show off their language, and moms’ learned from each other strategies and ideas for transmitting their mother tongue. We assembled a multilingual team to ensure that Kurdish was in the spotlight. As the moms were also comfortable with Arabic, we prepared translations of the materials and forms in Arabic. We were lucky to have the support of MCHB in this collaboration.
Join us on Thursday (February 24th) for #LanguageAdvocacyDay to hear more stories from and about Multilingual Families.
“We were singing in Amharic, talking in Amharic. She was asking them how do you say that in Amharic, reminding them of who they are. Children felt of a sense of who they are with their own peers with the same culture, with mom sitting and talking.” Community co-lead
In early Summer, we joined the Amharic and Tigrinyan community to implement language stimulation group with moms and their young children. Our goal was to support the community by creating a space to cherish their home language and scalfold language learning. We met around a traditional Coffee Ceremony mat every week a local Community League Hall. In conversations with our community co-leads, we adapted our program to meet their needs. We told stories, sang songs, and learned new words and traditions. Thanks to the work of our community co-leads and a youth from the community, we used Amharic, Tigrinya and a bit of English. We also drew from the Amharic versions within the StoryBooks Canada resources.
On our last day together, our co-leads hosted a Coffee Ceremony including kinche, dabo and amazing coffee. The coffee beans were roasted and brewed while we told stories with the children, the smoke from the roasting beans clarifying the space. Over our 8 weeks together, we learned about how language and culture are woven together in this community, how women use coffee ceremonies to share and work through problems, how children learn alongside each other and their parents, and how music and language come together. We are looking forward to sharing what we all learned with the community later this year.
The tips for parents include information and strategies for parents to use with their children to keep children’s home language alive and growing: (a) being bilingual is good; (b) learning takes place at home, school, & community; (c) each family has different expectations and hopes; and (d) strategies to keep language growing.
If you live in Edmonton, we also included a second page of resources to support growing up bilingual that are available in our community.
In this paper, we started with the premise that a bilingual child’s home language is a strength, and that we can build on this strength even when assessing the language of school. When I wrote the draft, I was thinking of the analogy of climbing a rockface. For monolingual children, they have many footholds for learning in the classroom as they can directly use their home language to learn in the classroom. For children who speak a different language at home, they do not have these footholds. But they are not without climbing abilities, they can transfer their home language, they can use their fast-mapping, and benefit from social contexts for learning in the classroom.
Starting with this idea, we developed a task that builds on children’s ability to transfer knowledge, to fast map, and to use social context for learning new words. The task is pretty cool! We didn’t want children to need to know the words in the language of school – and we hoped they could use their knowledge of home language. So, we searched for words that have similar phonological forms and meaning across languages (i.e., cognates as defined by Crystal, 2011). The words also had to be familiar to young children and an object… so we ended up with banana, taxi and kangaroo. Yep! These words are quite similar across languages that are from different families. We also introduced ‘new words’ that were possible word shapes across languages. These words were embedded in a play-based task.
The kindergarten children who took part in the study spoke one or two of 13 different languages at home. They were able to learn ‘new words’ in a 20-minute dynamic learning task. Amazing word learners!
Our postdoctoral Fellow, Catrine Demers, presented a poster at the Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN) Conference 2021 in November 2021 entitled “Power imbalance in family engagement in research: a self-reflection tool for researchers” with co-author Maude Champagne. Their infographic and self-reflection tool was created within the Family Engagement in Research Certificate of Completion at McMaster University offered in partnership with KBHN and CanChild. They won the award and prize for the Best Family Engagement and Partnership Poster Award Category 1.