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How Grandparents Impact Languages in the Family

Grandparents link the past, present, and future of a family’s heritage.

Key points

  • Grandparents may play a vital role in maintaining the heritage or home language in bilingual and multilingual families.
  • Interactions between grandparents and grandchildren in the home language may enhance cultural awareness, and the value of the home language.
  • Grandparents can boost positive emotional bonds with their grandchildren through the home language, yet they may also create negative emotions.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The grandparent-grandchild relationship is a special one, and grandparents can support a family’s emotional health. When the pandemic first hit, the lack of physical contact was especially missed between grandparents and grandchildren.

In families where more than one language is spoken, grandparents can play a vital role. As a grandmother myself, I have considered the roles grandparents may play, directly and indirectly. Recently, my 2½-year-old grandson Michael stayed with his grandfather and me for 10 days after a ruptured appendix knocked our daughter out of commission, with my son-in-law left with the care of Michael’s baby brother.

Growing up bilingual with Norwegian and English, Michael got sufficient doses of Norwegian during this period through his daycare and his grandfather whereas I replaced my daughter’s input in English. I witnessed how his English really blossomed and how he easily switched between languages. While parents may nurture bilingualism in children, grandparents can also make an important contribution.

Elizabeth Lanza
Source: Elizabeth Lanza

I still cling to the memories of my French grandparents. One of my fondest recollections is from a family visit to my mother’s parents in the south of France when I was 8 years old. Grandpère was a World War I veteran who had sustained back injuries necessitating his use of a cane.

At one large family gathering for Sunday dinner, I recall he sat at the head of the table of garrulous guests. Without inhibition, he strategically aimed the round handle of his cane to pull in the bottle of red wine from across the long table to his glass. I was shocked, yet duly impressed. That and the fact that I was served a small glass of red wine diluted with water became cultural memories for me that I have relished throughout the years. Yet I also recall Grandpère’s dismay over his grandchildren no longer speaking his language.

What can grandparents do when it comes to language as well as culture?

1. Contribute to language development

In the research literature, we find that monolingual grandparents, who live in the same household as the rest of the family, play a decisive role in maintaining the minority home language with their grandchildren. The children need to use that language to communicate with them on a daily basis.

Bilingual grandparents, do not despair. A study of a trilingual girl growing up with Tagalog, Spanish, and English in the U.S. showed that the child’s maternal grandparents supplemented exposure to Tagalog from her mother, while her paternal grandmother gave extra Spanish input with her father. That way both home languages were supported despite the domination of English in society.

 szefi/Shutterstock
Source: szefi/Shutterstock

Through digital communication, grandparents are important for fostering the home language. While the aim of digital family communication may be to nurture emotional bonds between family members physically absent, engaging in digital communication can contribute to informal language learning. This might have helped me maintain my French as a child. Grandparents provide not only linguistic input but also cultural awareness and identity in their online conversations with their grandchildren.

2. Enhance the value of the language in question

Grandparents’ use of a minoritized language conveys to the child the value of that language in family communication – that there is a need for the language or that it is part of the family’s cultural heritage. And it is never too late. An interview with a young politician in Norway who grew up monolingually with a Vietnamese father and Norwegian mother revealed that her father now watches Peppa Pig in Vietnamese with his 2-year-old granddaughter.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

How languages are evaluated in wider society can impact the family, and grandparents can be caught in the crossfire. A poignant account can be found in a study of mixed ethnic children in Japan, where the pressure for homogeneity still prevails. In the study, the only children who spoke the minority language were those whose non-Japanese parents had estranged relations with the Japanese grandparents and lived away from them. The choice of one language or the other by the parents affected which grandparents would maintain a relationship with their grandchildren.

3. Strengthen emotional bonds through language

Enhanced emotional bonds can be the motivation or indeed the outcome of conversations between grandparents speaking another language and the grandchild, resulting in “harmonious bilingualism”. However, anxiety can be triggered as a negative emotion across generations when grandparents are critical of their grandchildren’s heritage language proficiency, as revealed in a recent study of third-generation Turkish-Dutch bilinguals.

Romrodphoto/Shutterstock
Source: Romrodphoto/Shutterstock

In another study involving an Italian-Irish family in Ireland, the Italian grandparents devised an ingenious way to not only provide Italian language input to the child but also create an emotional bond in each other’s daily lives, despite the distance separating them. The grandparents watched their grandson watching TV in Ireland through Skype, chatting in Italian and asking him to translate what the cartoon characters were saying. It worked.

4. Create a bond with the family’s (and community’s) heritage

Monkey Business Images
Source: Monkey Business Images

Grandparents’ efforts can also contribute to maintaining bonds with the family’s heritage in a community. A long-term in-depth study in a community in Scotland revealed a grandmother’s use of a child-centered interactional style as a means to encourage her grandchildren to use Scottish Gaelic, a historically minoritized language, in the family.

Bonds with a family heritage not only ensure the cultural memories of the past, as in the case with my French grandfather, they may also inspire to learn the earlier generation’s language. My son was fascinated by the Sicilian origins of his great-grandfather on my father’s side and all the hype around the Godfather movies. This inspired him to study Italian in middle school, and as part of his university education, he had an exchange in Milano. My daughter was taken by the adventures of her French grandmother in the U.S. She favored learning French and spent a year in Toulouse in the south of France as part of her studies.

Grandparents are indeed grand and may never retire from having an impact on their grandchildren’s lives.

References

Living with Languages highlights research on bilingualism and multilingualism from infancy to aging of speakers of more than one language. It examines what it means to become bilingual or multilingual, how we use our languages in interaction, and how society around us impacts our knowledge and use of languages. This blog builds on and complements François Grosjean’s blog Life as a Bilingual.

De Houwer, A. (2020). Harmonious Bilingualism: Well-being for families in bilingual settings. In A. C. Schalley & S. A. Eisenchlas (eds.). Handbook of Home Language Maintenance and Development: Social and Affective Factors. De Gruyter Mouton.

King-O’Riain, R. C. (2014). Emotional streaming and transconnectivity: Skype and emotion practices in transnational families in Ireland. Global Networks 15: 256–273.

Lanza, E. & K. V. Lexander. (2020). Family language practices in multilingual transcultural families. In S. Montanari & S. Quay (eds.), Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Multilingualism. Mouton De Gruyter.

Montanari, S. (2009). Pragmatic differentiation in early trilingual development. Journal of Child Language 36(3): 597-627.

Nakamura, J. (2020). Language regrets: Mixed-ethnic children’s lost opportunity for minority language acquisition in Japan. Multilingua 39(2): 213–237.

Palviainen, Å. (2020). Video calls as a nexus of practice in multilingual translocal families. Zeitschrift für Interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht 25(1): 85–108.

Sevinç, Y. (2020). Anxiety as a negative emotion in home language maintenance and development. In A. C. Schalley & S. A. Eisenchlas (eds.). Handbook of Home Language Maintenance and Development: Social and Affective Factors. De Gruyter Mouton.

Smith-Christmas, Cassie (2018): ‘One Cas, Two Cas’: Exploring the affective dimensions of family language policy. Multilingua 37(2): 131–152.

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