Keeping Spanish language alive on the home front


Andrea Ceron, who graduated earlier this year with a Master of Applied Linguistics, examined the dynamics of how families maintain Spanish language fluency at home in New Zealand. 


Colombian-born teacher Andrea Ceron shifts easily between speaking her native Spanish and English, her second language. Ensuring her two children can do the same inspired her master’s research, through Massey University’s School of Humanities, on the challenges for Latin Americans raising bilingual children in largely monolingual New Zealand.

For Latin American parents, speaking Spanish at home is vital to maintain language fluency, she says. Maintaining one’s mother tongue (or heritage language) also helps to nurture a strong sense of identity for children of non-English speaking parents of any migrant culture. 

Palmerston North-based Ms Ceron, who moved here two years ago, graduated with a Master of Applied Linguistics this year. She is a lecturer in English as a second language at IPU (Institute of the Pacific United – a Japanese and New Zealand tertiary education institute). 

Her research report, titled Challenges and benefits of heritage languages in the home: a family language policy perspective explores the topic through case studies of three families in New Zealand where Spanish is spoken in the home. Her findings resonate with the aims of Spanish Language and Culture Week (October 18-27) to celebrate and support Spanish language in New Zealand.

Heritage language a bonus for education, economy and identity

The families she researched shared similar values and views about the importance of their kids learning Spanish so they can communicate with older relatives, as well as the cognitive and long-term educational benefits. The families who took part all live in the Manawatū region and had a parent from Chile, Mexico and Colombia. Ms Ceron used the smart phone app WhatsApp for data collection and weekly group interactions and discussions over a two-month period.

She found that barriers occurred when the Spanish-speaking parent opted not to speak Spanish exclusively in the home because the other parent felt excluded and there was pressure to constantly translate. This could be time-consuming and tiring.

“I was struck by the fact that most of the Spanish-speaking families that I spoke to would express language beliefs that prioritised English as the most important language for their children to acquire, based on economic and educational reasons and because the families found that communication was easier in the dominant language,” she says in her report.

If this trend continues, it is likely that second and third-generation children of Spanish-speaking parents will have very little Spanish language, she says. And this means they miss out on the advantages that come with being fluent in Spanish. 

“Spanish is a language that brings huge economic benefits to families and New Zealand,” she says. Maintaining their language has a cognitive impact by improving achievement across all subjects, as well as supporting social cohesion across generations within the family. Psychologically, they will have a sense of inclusion and strong sense of cultural identity. Linguistically, Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world. 

While New Zealand has legislative obligations to protect and promote Te Reo Māori, sign language and English as the official languages in the country, “the absence of articulated national-level language education provisions for non-official languages are a cause for concern,” she says.

The lack of any family language policy to define and support the use of heritage languages in the home makes it hard for Spanish-speaking parents to foster the use of their language at home, especially given the number of Spanish-speaking migrants has doubled between the last two censuses.

Understanding of culture and mindset through language 

One mother who participated in her research project described the importance of passing on her language, saying, “When you are a Latin person you have a way of being, a way of speaking, expressing, and living that is different from the Kiwi culture. So, I want them to understand that New Zealand is not the only culture for them, there is also my [Spanish] culture… I want them to understand why we behave like that, and why I do not behave like a typical Kiwi woman. And that one day it will help them to understand themselves, as they come from Latino blood and have grown up with a Latino mum.”

“Parents need to encourage their own language at home,” says Ms Ceron, who spoke only in Spanish at home with her children, aged five and seven. Then they started mixing Spanish and English, which – according to research – is a sign of becoming bilingual.

Her research notes a range of tools and strategies for parents in similar scenarios, including finding or creating a play group where children only speak Spanish, visiting the parent’s native country as often as possible and for the non-Spanish speaking parent to enrol in language classes.

She says the globalisation phenomenon of migrant families living in different parts of the world brings multicultural and multilinguistic diversity and is “a significant advantage for the socio-economic development of different nations.

“However, when countries are not well prepared to welcome different nationalities into an arena where different perspectives, cultures and languages came into play, the new migrant families’ ability to pass on their heritage language is impacted by the lack of support from government and community.”

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