The Value of Cultivating One’s First Language – A Revisit After 60 Years

  • September 11, 2006
  • Henriette Langdon

Identifying a language that will bridge the communication of our increasingly diverse populations who speak a variety of languages is imminent. Until the beginning of the 20th century, French served as the bridge for many of the languages spoken in Europe. Most importantly, it was the language to carry out pacts resulting from political conflicts. Not until WWI did English begun replacing the French language as the communication bridge. Today, English dominates the world of communication. English is the second most frequent native language spoken in the world (350 million), after Chinese (1,000 million). As many as 1.400 million use English as an official language and it currently holds first place. French ranks as the 11th most frequent native language and 6th as an official language. Details may be viewed on this site.

In the past, most of the immigrants to the U.S. lost their first language within one or two generations. Many of my contemporaries regret that their parents or grandparents did not teach them their language. There were many reasons for not using the first language and, instead, replace it with English. Today’s immigrants continue to experience dilemmas about maintaining their native language. One often hears that “speaking another language at home delays the acquisition of English”. This issue is particularly important when counseling families regarding which language to use at home when their children experience acquiring language. In a previous issue of QUÉ TAL, we discussed the value of maintaining the primary language even for those students who were experiencing difficulty in acquiring a language.

I recently had an opportunity to return to Poland for the third time in my life. The occasion was a sad one but inevitable. My parents had requested that their ashes be buried in the family’s cemetery in Warsaw. I grew up in a bilingual environment. My parents and grandparents who survived WWII immigrated to Mexico shortly after the end of the war. Polish continued the main language of communication in the family. I was bilingual from birth and continued speaking Polish with my family Even though my parents had gone through hardships in Poland, this language continued to be alive for them. It was the language in which they had communicated with their parents and families and the language in which they” learned to l” and acquired new knowledge.  I never questioned or was surprised to speak another language at home and this did not prevent me from learning Spanish and, later on French in an immersion school where I completed my elementary and secondary education. I had never visited Poland until four years ago but my Polish remained quite fluent although my reading and writing lagged somewhat due to exposure and practice. Speaking Polish helped me have a direct understanding of my parents’ and family history. Even though only 46 million people in the world speak the language and its value and issue may be regarded as “limited” compared to English, Chinese, or even Spanish and French, it assisted me in keeping an additional “pair of lenses” to view of the world.

I have used my personal language history in my work with children and families who have varied language backgrounds encouraging them to maintain their home language even when their children experience difficulty in learning a language. I will repeat some of what many already may know.
Maintaining a home language assists in:

  • Fostering communication between family members.
  • Opening the child’s view onto a different culture.
  • Appreciating the family’s past and history.
  • Does not prevent learning the majority language even when a child has a communication disorder.

There are more people on this globe who speak more than one language.

During my very recent visit to Poland I was glad to be able to communicate in Polish fairly competently. Being in the country and speaking the language enabled me to appreciate the power of possessing this “additional pair of cultural and linguistic lenses.”

As a new academic year is about to begin, I encourage all of to remember that there is great value in speaking more than one language. Getting rid of one’s home language is like killing a live tree.

Coming up in OCTOBER 2006
The Importance of Language Loss

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

Recent Posts

Together, let’s create brighter futures for culturally diverse students.