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Linguist’s concern at heritage language report

August 11, 2014

Linguist’s concern at heritage language report

New migrants should be supported to speak their own language to ensure their children develop a strong cultural identity, says a Massey University linguist critical of a government report on the subject.

Dr Arianna Berardi-Wiltshire says a recent Internal Affairs report, Language and Integration in New Zealand, gives the wrong message by emphasising a negative correlation between maintaining a heritage language [mother tongue] and gaining proficiency in English.

The report’s focus on the importance of English language skills for employment is valid, but it overlooks the intrinsic value of heritage language for family relationships, she says. “We have over 160 languages spoken in New Zealand. It’s time we had a national languages policy —, a key document that formally recognizes the linguistic diversity of our population, and provides orientation and clear guidelines on their place and value in our society.”

“It’s crucial for [non-English speaking] parents to feel vindicated in speaking their own language with their children. We're talking about the transfer of cultural knowledge which can be crucial to the healthy development of children of immigrant background,” she says. “Language carries deep cultural roots and the foundations of identity.”

The 26-page report acknowledges that “proficiency in English and heritage language maintenance is important” for positive integration. It also refers to “a negative correlation between conditions that are favourable to English language acquisition and those that promote heritage language maintenance.”

“Consequently, very few migrants or their descendants born in New Zealand will be able to read, write and speak proficiently in both English and their heritage language,” the report says.

This message has worried Dr Berardi-Wiltshire and other academic linguists who have expressed their concerns to the department. They say the report’s recommendations are not supported by New Zealand-based research, and that heritage language maintenance is vital for the well-being and inter-generational relationships of migrants. Dr Berardi-Wiltshire says teenagers of some migrants would be vulnerable to experiencing confusion or a “shaky” sense of identity if their parents felt their heritage language was a barrier rather than a benefit to their children. “The advantages of bilingualism are well-documented,” she says.

The report’s apparent lack of understanding about the value of heritage languages in an era of high immmigration and increasing cultural diversity showed New Zealand is out of step with similarly diverse nations such as Canada and Australia, both of which have had national languages policies in place for decades, she says.

Ms Berardi-Wiltshire is currently researching the language dynamics of migrant families in New Zealand with children born here. She aims to produce a set of guidelines for print and a website offering practical advice for migrant families on how to navigate the pressure to adapt alongside the desire to maintain their heritage language and culture.

Professor Paul Spoonley, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and well-known for his research and media commentary on New Zealand’s cultural diversity, says he welcomes the new report on heritage languages. “Heritage language maintenance is important as part of a much more diverse language landscape we are seeing in New Zealand”.

“Ultimately, it’s about respecting these diverse language communities, and recognising the importance of language to both individual and collective identities through maintaining language use over time and generations,” he says. “It would be great to have a much more robust and supportive language policy”.


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