By: Sirad Shirdon
“ We only use English in the home”.
As a speech-language pathologist, families often admit that they speak English exclusively in the home. If these families were from English speaking backgrounds, this would be understandable. However, I am increasingly hearing this from families who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The commonly held beliefs that drive this phenomenon, are that (1) children will learn English faster this way, and (2) if children have a speech/language delay (e.g. they’re not speaking yet), it’s because the child is confused by the multiple languages they’re being exposed to. Increasingly in our Somali community here in Ohio, you will meet mothers who insist on speaking only English in the household. However, these mothers may not have a good grasp of the English language and end up communicating with their children in broken English.
The first myth
Children will learn English faster, if it is the only language spoken in the home. This widely held belief is incorrect. In my field of speech-language pathology, we are always talking about the importance of modeling language, for young children. Modeling language involves teaching children the sounds, vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure of a given language by talking, reading, reciting poetry etc. Once the child has received a strong foundation in the first language, they will transfer those skills to learning their second language. If we consider a Somali child learning English, we know there are several sounds that are found in English, but not in Somali and vice versa. A child may be learning the English vocabulary for the first time, and be confronted with the English word ‘vacuum’. Up to this point, the child has not been exposed to the sound ‘v’ and will naturally replace it with the closest sounding sound in Somali, ‘f’. So the word comes out as ‘facuum’. For children who are learning two languages at the same time, these errors are completely normal (ASHA, Advantages of being bilingual). The child’s developing brain is making sense of the two language systems, and by kindergarten children are able to separate the two languages. In the early years, it is not uncommon to see the child mixing the two language systems. During this time, it is very important that the parents give the child a strong foundation in their strongest language and for most of us that is afka hooyo, af-Somaali (the mother language, Somali). This way the child will transfer the strong skills into their English language learning, which will facilitate their learning of the language. If parents insist on solely speaking English, children do not receive the benefits associated with bilingualism which includes being able to process information in multiple ways, greater cognitive flexibility, improved problem solving and listening (ASHA, Advantages of being bilingual).
The second myth
Speaking in one’s native language confuses the child and contributes to speech/language delays. Increasingly, there are many Somali children who are being diagnosed with speech/language delays. Many families believe that Somali is confusing, and that since English is the language used in the schools, this too should be the language of the home. This concern is completely understandable, as the stakes are much greater for parents who have a child with a speech/language delay. However, the advice remains the same: the parent should continue to communicate with their child in the language their most comfortable with (ASHA, Learning two languages). Think of language as a circle, as one system. If the child is learning English and Somali, the circle splits in half. Any issues with one component of language, say vocabulary, will show up in the other language. For instance, in my practice, I have seen children whose problems saying verbs in one language, show up in the other language.
In sum, there are tremendous benefits to speaking to your child in Somali at home. A solid foundation in Somali will assist your child in learning other languages. In the early years, Somali children are exposed to many languages, including Somali, Arabic and English; these languages will aid the children and help them to acquire beneficial skills. However, this in large part depends on providing the child with an early, solid foundation in their first language, Somali.
Please visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website, to learn more about bilingualism: http://www.asha.org/about/news/tipsheets/bilingual/
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Learning two languages. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/BilingualChildren.htm
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The advantages of being bilingual. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/about/news/tipsheets/bilingual/