What happens with minority languages?

Raising children is challenging. And when parents speak a language that is different from the surrounding, parenting can become even more demanding. One of the biggest questions many parents of little multilinguals have is - what will happen with our home language(s)?

As you keep on reading, you might notice some terms such as home language(s), mother tongue, minority language(s), majority language... So let's see what these mean.

In this article (but based on what other experts have written on the topic),

  • Home language(s) is a term used for language(s) parents speak at home. In our family, the home language is Croatian because both my husband and I speak Croatian with our children. Our friends speak English (mum) and German (dad) to their kids. For them, home languages are English and German. We also have friends who speak French (mum), Italian (dad) and English (mum and dad between themselves). For their child, all three languages are family languages. 
  • Mother tongue is usually described as the language the child hears first. It is often associated with the language the mother uses. But, what about the father? There isn't a term father tongue. So, if the father speaks Italian and the mother speaks French to the child, which language is the mother tongue? Therefore, I prefer the term home language(s). 
  • Minority language(s) is a term used for language(s) not spoken by the majority. For example - we live in Germany and speak Croatian at home. This means that Croatian is the minority language. Because children receive much input in German (school, friends, surrounding...), they are at risk to lose Croatian. And this is what many parents are afraid of - losing the minority language. 
  • Majority language is pretty straightforward - in most cases, it is the official language and the language most people speak.
The research[1] says that the minority language shows a decline in use across generations in favour of the majority language. In other words – the majority language always wins. So, as a researcher, I was interested to see how this looked like in our family. 

These colours (green, blue, yellow) represent the languages our children speak.

Green - Croatian

Blue - German

Yellow - English

At the beginning of the research, when they were four years old, most of their conversations were green, which means – Croatian. In contrast, German (blue) was not their preferred language. And English (yellow) varied. Then, in December (see 12 and 01 on the X), we went to Croatia on holiday. After we got back, things changed. Almost overnight, German took over. From April on (04 on the X), the boys started playing and speaking to each other in German. However, when they spoke with us, they used Croatian. Why? Because, as they blatantly explained to us, our German was not as good as theirs. And it was very time-consuming for them to explain everything to us. Hence, it was easier for them to simply speak in Croatian when we were a part of their conversations.

Now, a year later, these numbers speak in favour of German even more.

It seems like we add to the number of families whose kids find it more and more challenging to speak in the minority language.

This change in language preferences often causes some parents to feel disappointed or

frustrated. But isn't it completely normal and expected if we consider that our kids are getting more input in the majority language? Their friends speak the majority language. They learn and study in the majority language. They hear the majority language on the radio, in shops and at train stations.

However, these facts are not the reason for you to give up and give in.

Remember: The more engagement the child has with the minority language, the greater their likelihood of using it. 

Finally – do your best, but don't despair if it turns out to be a step forward and two steps back. It's cha-cha-cha. It's life with languages.

[1] For more research, see:

  • De Houwer, A. (2007). Parental language input patterns and children's bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics 28 (2007), 411–424
  • De Houwer, A. (2011). Language input environments and language development in bilingual acquisition (221-240). In: Li Wei, Applied Linguistics Review 2. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG: Berlin.