Mom, Talk to Me in My Mother Tongue: Socioeconomic Status and Heritage Language Maintenance of East and South Asian Canadian Community

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, BA, University of Toronto Scarborough

Over the past few decades Canada has fostered multiculturalism. However since the official language of the country is English and French, it is up to the individuals from different ethnicity backgrounds to decide whether and how to pass down their heritage language. Since languages connect closely with one’s culture and identity, the choice might be hard to make. Curious about the factors that influence heritage language learning, I conducted a study to analyze the connection between parental support for heritage language maintenance and the parents’ socioeconomic status.

Sociolinguists consider socioeconomic status an important factor in determining an individual’s language skills. Previous research suggests that the parents’ educational level and income is correlated with the children’s language development. Parents with higher education and more prestigious jobs might have better language skills themselves, more access to resources that facilitate language learning, and possibly more time to spend with the children. Consequently, the children would have more diverse vocabularies and learn to read and write earlier.

I collected the data for my study through an online survey. The participants were 80 East and South Asian immigrant parents from Toronto, the majority of whom had lived in Canada for more than 10 years. Their children were either born in Canada or had arrived prior to the age of seven. The survey gathered background information about the participants, including their heritage language use in daily life, their motivation to pass down their heritage language to the next generation, and whether they had registered their children in heritage language maintenance programs.

Mother and Child. (Photo: lain910)

One of the most important steps in this research was to determine the parents’ socioeconomic status. While income can be an indication of socioeconomic status, out of the consideration for the participant’s privacy, I did not ask for the families’ annual income in the survey. I am also aware that there might be a mismatch between income and job prestige. Therefore, I designed several questions to gather information about the parents’ educational background and occupations. Taking all the factors into consideration, I divided the participants into high socioeconomic status and low socioeconomic status groups. For example, parents who have a bachelor’s degree and work in business administration were considered to have higher socioeconomic status than parents who work in the same discipline but have a high school degree. In order to make the analysis easier to process, I ensured that both groups had a similar number of participants.

There were seven questions to determine the parents’ attitudes toward heritage language maintenance and the action they took to facilitate the children’s learning. I asked about the parents’ frequency of using heritage language with their children, whether they think learning heritage language has negative influences on the children’s English, whether they consider English more important than heritage language, and whether they sent their children to a heritage language program. All the parents responded that they are willing to have their children speak their heritage language but some of the low socioeconomic status parents worried that teaching the heritage language might confuse their children in an English speaking environment.

 I also asked the participants to choose from four possible motivations for teaching their children their heritage language. The four motivations are: “enable the children to communicate with the family members”, “benefit their career development”, “help them better understand their culture heritage”, and “build their culture identity”. The choice of motivation reflects what the parents expect their children to gain from heritage language learning: basic communication needs, long term benefits, or more abstract concepts and knowledge.

After analyzing the data, I drew the conclusion that parents from both socioeconomic  groups are supportive of their children’s heritage language learning but were motivated by different reasons. Parents with higher  socioeconomic status tended to emphasize the importance of the cultural value of education and literacy. Graph 1a shows that more of the high socioeconomic status parents (H) reported that they had registered their children for a heritage language maintenance program (HLM), compared to the low socioeconomic status parents (L). The biggest difference (20%) was between parents with and without a university degree; those with a Bachelor’s degree were much more likely to register their children in a heritage language program than those with a high school education (graph 1b). This suggests that the educational level of the former generation highly influences the education of their children.

On the other hand, the efforts made by low socioeconomic status parents are mainly seen in heritage language use in daily life rather than through formal educational  programs. Graph 2a shows that more than 85% of low socioeconomic status parents chose “enable my children to communicate with family and community members’ (Family) as the most important factor that motivated them to teach their children heritage language; 20% fewer of  the high socioeconomic status parents chose that same motivation. Some low socioeconomic status parents noted in the survey that they themselves don’t speak English very well so they have to teach their children heritage language in order to communicate with them. In addition, low socioeconomic status families are more likely to live in cultural enclaves where the children could practice their heritage language outside of their own homes. Therefore, heritage language learning for low socioeconomic status families develops out of daily communication needs and the children tend to have more opportunities to use the language in real life. This is also reflected by the frequency of the usage of heritage language at home. Many more low socioeconomic status parents reported that they always communicate with their child in their heritage language than the high socioeconomic status parents (graph 2b).

High socioeconomic status families tend to live in more culturally diverse neighbourhoods, and so do not use their heritage language as frequently.   Fewer than half of the high socioeconomic status parents reported that they always communicate with their children using their heritage language (graph 2b). These parents also chose “help building their culture identity” (Identity) as the top motivation for heritage language maintenance (graph 2a). The number of parents who chose “benefit their career development” and “help them better understand their cultural heritage” are also higher in the high socioeconomic status group (graph 2a). These would be reasons to send their children to heritage language programs, where not only language skills but also history and cultural heritage lessons are taught.

In conclusion, children from low socioeconomic status families are more likely to have good oral communication skills, because of daily use of their heritage language. Children from high socioeconomic status families, while more likely to be registered in heritage language programs, would be less skilled in communication and comprehension. On the other hand, they would have more formal instruction in their heritage culture and history. In future research, I am interested in investigating the motivations for heritage language maintenance from the children’s perspective.

Aside from these findings, the data also demonstrated some interesting phenomena that can be further explored in future research.

Ethnicity difference was not one of the factors that I initially planned to look into. However, as shown in graph (3), the number of East Asian parents (EA) who replied ‘Yes I have’ to the question of whether they had registered their children for heritage language programs was 20% higher than that of South Asian parents (SA). My current hypothesis is that the number of accessible resources (language schools and cultural institutions) are different for East and South Asian communities. However, an actual conclusion requires further data collecting and analysis.

Child reading. (Photo: Sofía López Olalde)