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Parents hesitant to pass on language, accent to kids: survey

“Instead of helping her develop the language, all primary teachers assessed her language in comparison with the monolinguals and demanded to cut the other languages ‘to improve’ the school language.”

That was one parent’s account of the way their daughter’s school approached her ability to speak a language other than English.

It was captured in a recent survey of 281 multilingual families across Australia.

The research found many first-generation migrant parents felt hesitant to speak multiple languages at home, or felt their efforts were not being supported at school.

Writing for The Conversation, Chloé Diskin-Holdaway, an applied linguistics lecturer at the University of Melbourne, and Paola Escudero, a Professor in Linguistics at Western Sydney University, said these parents believe speaking a different language at home will give their children a foreign accent. Some parents also worried that by speaking English, their children will pick up their own accent.

“This can leave some parents in somewhat of a catch-22, feeling that no matter what, their children will be faced with the same discrimination as them,” the experts wrote.

And their concerns are not unfounded, as Diskin-Holdaway and Escudero pointed out: “Research suggests people are highly biased in their preferences for certain accents and languages.

“These kinds of biases develop early in life. In a 2009 study, five-year-old children chose to be friends with native speakers of their native language rather than those who spoke a foreign language or had an accent.”

But the authors added that a second language “can be a superpower”.

“…some of the world’s brightest people, such as author Joseph Conrad, spoke with a strong accent. Many others, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Gustavo Pérez-Firmat and Eva Hoffman (who wrote Lost in Translation in her second language) harnessed the benefits of being bilingual to produce astounding literary works, drawing on the different 'voices' in their heads to act out different characters.

“Children who can speak several languages tend to have higher levels of empathy. They also find it easier to learn languages later in life.”

The pair said they hope linguistic diversity becomes the status quo. “This way, all children will gain cultural awareness and sensitivity. They will become more attuned to their evolving identities, and accept others may have identities different to their own.”

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