Kids are Learning Foreign Languages in Quarantine; Why?

A recent New York Times article has noted that for some immigrant families, the pandemic has meant a return to using more of their native language, especially for the children of the home. Here is a sample:

All over the world, Covid-19 has forced children to stay inside. In some homes where different languages coexist, this is changing how they speak. With schools and day cares closed, previously dominant languages — such as English in Britain and the United States — are no longer as overpowering. Instead, children are hearing more of their parents’ mother tongues.

Read the entire article at In Quarantine, Kids Pick Up Parents’ Mother Tongues (, September 10, 2020)

Between Two Worlds

The situation created by the pandemic brings to light some interesting realities about the immigrant experience. When two cultures are represented in a home, the members of the family must daily navigate between two different worlds: their “home” culture and their new “host” culture.

Many may believe that learning the language of the new host culture is all that matters. However, the mother tongue is very important for retaining home culture identity, and the new language is essential for achieving comfort in the environment of the new host culture. Fluency in two cultures, which includes two languages and two ways to think about things, is almost like having two sets of life skills (See The Immigrant’s Edge for more on this).

Entering a New Culture

A helpful model for understanding this comes from John Berry. Berry outlines four general approaches that immigrants may take when negotiating between their home culture and their new host culture.

  • Marginalization – When immigrants neither hold on to their original home culture nor accept their new host culture. They end up living in isolation from both cultural groups. Normally, this is not a healthy way to live.
  • Separation – When immigrants focus on maintaining their original home culture without embracing their new host culture. This is not an ideal scenario, but for older immigrants, this is often the case.
  • Assimilation – When immigrants discard their original home culture and completely accept their new host culture. This frequently happens with the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
  • Integration – When immigrants hold on to some aspects of their original home culture, while also adjusting well to the new host culture. Ease in both worlds is a wonderful achievement.

A Word for “Hosts”

Those of us who are part of the host culture ought to resist judgmental attitudes toward immigrants as they make cultural adjustments. Instead, consider the beneficial effects of befriending and helping internationals integrate into their new home. Teach them about your culture (their new one) while showing respect and appreciation for the culture they have come from. (see 21 Intercultural Skills). They will be grateful and you will reap great rewards for a balanced, accepting attitude toward your international friends.

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