Family matters: Multilingualism, diversity and language policies – Fellows’ seminar by Elizabeth Lanza

18 April 2024

“Languages bring families together and the languages we use are important for our identity and well-being.  The maintenance of the family language is very important, with the microlevel interactions in families playing a decisive role in both language maintenance and shifts,” explained Elizabeth Lanza from MultiLing – Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, University of Oslo.

“Multilingualism has existed since antiquity, yet today an increasing number of languages are endangered or face extinction due to the lack of intergenerational transmission of the home or heritage language in the family,” she said. “With increased transnational migration in recent years, children growing up with more than one language has become widespread as people cross borders, integrate into new cultural-linguistic landscapes, form intermarriages and partnerships, and create families in which children may become multilingual – or may not.”

STIAS Fellow Elizabeth Lanza during her seminar on 2 April 2024

While such transnational families are not new, the current degree of mobility is and brings additional challenges and opportunities.

Family multilingualism is a topic in which Lanza has both a personal and professional interest having grown up in Morocco, India and the US with a French-speaking mother who stopped speaking her mother tongue once the family settled in the US.

Lanza noted that there are complex factors including school, neighbourhood and community, which bring social and political influences that impact a family’s decision concerning language use in the home. This may be either to maintain the heritage language or to minimize its use in favour of a dominant societal language often perceived to be of higher value for socialization and integration, and therefore more useful to the children’s future.

“Home language maintenance and development in multilingual families has become increasingly complex in contemporary globalisation,” she continued. “This complexity results in large part from the social, cultural and linguistic changes and diversity brought about by new communication technologies and changes in the political and economic landscape.”

Not maintaining a language, especially a minority one, can have huge consequences for the language’s existence. Lanza referred to endangered languages defined as those at risk of disappearing as people shift to using other languages, or as speakers die out and there is no intergenerational transfer. In Africa alone there are currently 428 languages presumed to be dying. On the other hand, through transnational migration, even languages with many speakers elsewhere can also die out at the family level when there is no longer any intergenerational language transmission.

Why some children succeed in learning and using the heritage language while others do not is an enduring question. Scholars remain interested in why some languages are transmitted and others not. Further themes of ongoing research focus on the ways in which different languages are used for different purposes within the family structure. Recent work pays attention to heritage language maintenance as a way to keep relationships flourishing where families are ‘stretched’ across geographical distances. In modern transnational families, technology plays an important role in enabling families to use different languages in different types of digital interaction.

Lanza noted various myths about multilingualism in families and in communities, including myths about language acquisition propagating the idea that children just absorb languages – “This is not true, no child can do it, it takes work and they need to be exposed to languages to ensure multilingualism.”

“In early bilingualism children may engage in language mixing as they use whatever words they have at their disposal to communicate. This is unfortunately often taken as a sign of confusion; however, this is quite normal and the mixing is systematic.”

“People also tend to think you must be fully monolingual in two languages to be bilingual but a bilingual is not the combination of two monolinguals in one and the same person. Usually one language dominates. We use different languages in different situations, with different people and for different purposes.”

Expanding field

Lanza noted that the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Family Language Policy was first named in 2008. She traced the development of the field from classic diary studies to the study of psycholinguistic questions (like whether children learning two languages from birth start with one or two linguistic systems) in the 1980s and 90s, to more sociolinguistic approaches (from 2008 onwards), to the current focus on more diverse ranges of family types, languages and contexts and on globally dispersed, transnational, multilingual, populations. Current approaches require more heterogeneity and adaptability in methods.

Early work also largely focused on Western, educated, white, nuclear families but it is now realised that extended, multigenerational families are much more the norm.

“The field originally looked at types of input needed to facilitate multilingual development in children and at the decision-making processes on which languages to use in the home. This has shifted to research questions that examine language as a means through which multilingual adults and children define themselves and their families, as well as a shift in focus to globally dispersed, multilingual populations beyond traditional nuclear families,” she explained.

“The theories now being used include critical discourse, polymedia theory, post-structuralist understandings of identity, translanguaging, theories of space, repertoire theory, social realist theory and southern decolonial approaches,” she added.

Within this changing trajectory, she highlighted three projects in which she has been involved with colleagues – namely looking at family languages during COVID; the notion of space including digital communication; and, families at the crossroads of public and private discourses.

“One silver lining of the COVID pandemic was the opportunity to study families and their communicative practices as in a laboratory,” she said. “This gave us the opportunity to survey language-use beliefs within families during a pandemic – allowing us to directly tap into family experience.”

The study on family multilingualism during COVID, conducted in Norway (and also the UK) included 200 respondents, over 45 languages, and families with children ranging up to age 18. It looked at overall beliefs about multilingualism, language use before and during lockdown, as well as the impact of school closures.

“We found that being multilingual is regarded as an important part of identity and that use of the home language was seen as a source of well-being during COVID. We found that the lockdown with home schooling had a positive effect on home/heritage languages in daily interactions and online communication with extended family. Moreover, the extensive presence of English in online spaces such as TV and online computer gaming confirmed the position of English in transnational families.”

“Second, digital-spaces projects allow us to look at the family as a socially constructed space and the way in which technology creates a new near space and a learning tool for languages,” she continued. “Technology means that the family can be conceptualised as a space not constrained by geography. Recent studies contribute to understanding family multilingualism through digital space and mapping which language is used for which relationship.”

The third study looked at the socio-political pressures on family languages and whether family really is as private a space as once conceived. With new technologies and ubiquitous (social) media, the boundaries between private and public become blurred.

“Across Europe there have been instances of right-wing governments reacting in the media against immigrant families speaking heritage languages and suggesting they speak the societal language in the home,” she added.

The project included analysing media representations of Norwegian Child Welfare Services (Barnevernet), rulings from the European Court of Human Rights against Barnevernet, as well as parliamentary debates, and interviews with transnational families.

Going forward, Lanza hopes to bring in more data from the Global South and to look at aspects of language within decoloniality. “There is lots of such work in South Africa much of which is aimed at addressing increasing social and epistemic injustices.”

“The field can be enhanced by drawing on knowledge of, and from, the Global South.”

In closing, Lanza said, “What our work has found is that every child is unique and each family case requires contextualisation, showing that broad generalisations are mostly misleading. Very complex issues and challenges determine choices to pass on a heritage language while also developing a prestigious societal language, and how people choose to do it.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu


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