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)

Coming to la Tavola of Italian-Canadian Heritage

This week we’re speaking with Caroline di Cocco about her experiences working to preserve the history, language, and culture of one of Canada’s largest immigrant groups: the Italian-Canadians.

Italians make up a large part of the history of Canadian immigration. In the 2011 census 1.5 million Canadians (4.6% of our total population) stated they are at least partially of Italian heritage. The Italians who came, and come, to Canada with their language (or languages, but more on that later), become a part of Canada’s language landscape. It is the work of Caroline di Cocco, and others across Canada, to preserve their stories, experiences, and their language. Not just for their descendants, but for all Canadians.

IMG_0005 (2)

[My gramma and grampa, Rita and Cataldo, and my dad and his brother, Frank and John]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in documenting the heritage of Italians in Canada?

Caroline Di Cocco : I began documenting the story of the Italian-Canadian Presence around the mid-1980’s. I tried to find some history about the Italian presence in the Sarnia area. The closest thing I was able to find in the written history of Sarnia was that there was a growth of the Italian population in Sarnia in the 1950’s due to the growth of the refineries. I was driven by this question: how did the Italian-Canadian presence change the community of Sarnia-Lambton, and how were the Italians changed by having created a new home and a new life in the area? I felt a profound sense that if we did not take on the responsibility to research and document stories of the Italian-Canadian presence, these stories would be lost for future generations.

MI : What has been the immigration history? When did the Italian-canadians come to Canada?

CDC : The Italian immigration history has many complexities that fill volumes of books. In this response I can only touch on a couple of aspects. These stories are built of struggle, sacrifice, survival, resourcefulness, hard work, adjustment, and success; and in the creation of an identity which is unique from that of Italians in Italy. This was created out of holding on to one’s identity and values while at the same time re-creating that identity in a Canadian context. The Italian immigration story of Sarnia Lambton is written in a book called “One by One… Passo dopo passo.” In the introduction, Dr. Gabriele Scardellato writes, “From the late 1870s to the early 1980’s a total of some 630,000 Italians had immigrated to Canada”. In our research of the area we found evidence of a Charles Ribighini in 1870 who came to work in the oil fields in the Petrolia area [This may be the first Italian to come to Canada, although no one can ever know for sure].

Numerous stories of this history and experience is dispersed across the country and in personal collections. These collected histories of Italian-Canadians are fragmented and many of the stories are hidden from the public. More research needs to be done because collections and personal histories are being lost or forgotten with each generation.

In order to have the Italian-Canadian stories preserved, made accessible, and to document the ones that have yet to be told, the Italian-Canadian Archives Project (ICAP) was founded.

MI : What is the Italian-Canadian Archive Project?

CDC : The Italian-Canadian Archives Project “ICAP” is a not-for-profit organization, incorporated to promote and organize a national strategy to gather, preserve and make accessible material about the Italian-Canadian experience across the country. To this end, ICAP has created a Canada-wide network of established and emerging researchers in the field of Italian-Canadian studies to collaborate, partner and connect with other individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions across Canada who are interested in the Italian-Canadian experience. Through this network, ICAP works to encourage and support activities to preserve and provide access to materials on the Italian-Canadian experience.

MI : Why is it important to preserve the Italian spoken by the immigrants to Canada and their descendants?

CDC : I believe that the identity of one’s heritage is directly tied to that specific language. By understanding and speaking the language of one’s heritage, you create a stronger connection to the culture and you are able to engage others with others within that community, which makes one feel more a part of that heritage.

MI : How does the archive use the materials it gathers to create this stronger connection?

CDC : ICAP does not collect materials directly, but facilitates the preservation of collections. It does this through its national network of experts who assist in identifying collections that are at risk, and help to direct these collections to archives such as the National Museum of History, or to local archives. All across Canada ICAP members assist in bringing together Italian-Canadian communities to engage in the conversation about their Italian-Canadian stories, and to encourage the local communities to collect, preserve, and make accessible their history. We encourage people that their stories are an important part of Canada’s History; assist them, with the help of experts, on how they can preserve their history; provide workshops; and to connect like-minded communities who are doing this kind of work. Finally, we provide support and advice to ensure that any materials are preserved in either a local, provincial, university or national archive.

By keeping these documents, stories and artifacts in archives, it ensures that they are professionally managed, catalogued, and over time, digitized and made accessible to all Canadians.

MI : Why is it important to record the voices and histories of the Italian immigrants and their families?

CDC : The voices and histories of the Italian immigrant tells of experiences of dramatic change in people’s lives and how their lives impacted communities into which the settled. These stories are about people who for the most part came from very humble origins. The stories are important in so many ways, and I believe we have a responsibility to make certain future generations can also hear them. If we do not document our history then who will? After all, it helps us to understand ourselves and how we fit into the fabric of Canada.

MI : How are culture and language tied together?

CDC : Culture and language are intrinsically tied to one another. Cultural identity is imbedded in language in so many ways. For example, take the Italian relationship to food. When a table is considered as its physical noun, it is gender neutral “il tavolo”. When a table has been set for dining for guests, or is prepared for the family to sit and eat, then it is no longer just a physical and objective object, and the feminine gender is used “la tavola”.

MI : What do the experiences of the Italian immigrants tell us about language and immigration more broadly?

CDC : The stories and experiences tell us that although people adapt, adjust, and rebuild a life in a new country, their identity is intrinsically connected to their language and place of origin. The shaping of their values and thinking is in large part connected to their roots. Their behaviour is in many ways shaped by the place of origin, and closely tied to their heritage. Basically I see that the day-to-day lives of the immigrants, although they are now for all intents and purposes Canadian, are full of habits and ways of life that are closely linked to their ethnic and historical heritage [For instance, my gramma still gets up and bakes fresh bread at 78 years of age almost daily. She has friends that have “secret” places where they harvest wild asparagus and mushrooms each year, and only pass on the location to their children. And the full moon of October is still used for when wine pressed in garages is bottled or racked].

MI : You published a book on the history of Italians in the town of Sarnia (which happens to also be my hometown). What has been the experience and history of the Italians of southwestern Ontario, and does it differ from the experiences of Italians elsewhere in Canada?

CDC : I find that there are many similarities but also significant differences. The stories have a similar theme no matter where the Italians settled, not just in Canada, but around the world. For the most part, the values of a strong work ethic, and close family units are a common theme anywhere you go.

My observations have been that in smaller towns and cities, Italians seem to have integrated more quickly within the Canadian community, although they continue to maintain a pride of their heritage. In smaller centers those of Italian origin identify themselves as either Italian-Canadians, or simply as Canadians with Italian background. In large centres, where the number of Italians is in the hundreds of thousands, such as Toronto, they have create “little Italys”, and seem to stay connected more to their place of origin. From my conversations with many groups and individuals, they seem to identify more with Italy.

When the conversation of Italian-Canadian history takes place, I have found that in small centres it is about the journey here to Canada, whereas in large cities it seems to be about what constitutes being Italian.

MI : Are there differences in the Italian spoken in Sarnia, vs Windsor, vs Toronto, vs elsewhere in Canada? Why would that be?

CDC : Because of “chain migration” [Which allows an immigrant, once given citizenship or permanent residence status, to sponsor or bring extended family to join them in their new country], people from the same town or same regions of Italy settled in the same places in Canada. Because most people who emigrated had very little education, they did not speak Italian, but their specific dialects, which often are very different languages. For instance if the group was from Sicily, they spoke Sicilian. For someone like me, who is from Central Italy, Sicilian is a foreign language.

There are many different dialects all coming from Italy. These dialects are all labelled Italian; however, they are distinct. Depending on where the specific clusters of Italian immigrants settled, you will see a common dialect. For example, the majority of Italians to settle in Sarnia come from southern Lazio, known as Ciociaria, so you have that dialect spoken. In Toronto the largest number of immigrants come from Calabria, with many from Sicily, some from Friuli, Abruzzo, Molise, whereas a much smaller number are from southern Lazio. Not only do you have different “Italian” spoken from city to city, but also great variation within the cities.

It is only over the last maybe 20 years, due to mass education, that most people speak “standard” Italian in Italy, and unfortunately the dialects are being lost.

MI : Do you feel that the experience of “being Italian” in Canada has changed over the past 50 years?

CDC : Yes I think it has changed from “Italian-ness” initially having a negative or pejorative connotation to being “in” today. The experience has changed because the Italians earned the respect of other Canadians along the way. As Canadians interacted with Italians they were less uncertain about them. This understanding has led to the appreciation of the Italian values of hard work, family, good food and so on, and of course this worked in reverse too as Italians more-and-more integrated into Canadian society.

Unfortunately, this acceptance has led to the perception that Italian is not needed, and a decreased interest in learning Italian. There are fewer and fewer Italian-Canadians today who speak Italian.

IMG_20151005_140722

[Making wine using an old-fashioned, hand-cranked, press]

There is a phrase, “Hyphenated Canadian”. It represents the idea that many Canadians don’t identify as simply Canadian. If you ask many Canadians, including many in my own family, they don’t say they are Canadian, rather they say they are “X-Canadian”. For example, they may consider themselves “Italian-Canadian”, or maybe even just “Italian”(the Canadian part being assumed).

Very few Canadians, if they are willing to go back a couple of generations, will find that their ancestors were living in Canada. We are a nation of nationalities. Canadians are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis, but Canadians are also Somali, Ukrainian, and Thai. These heritages shape us individually, and also as a nation. Italian isn’t something I may need to use on a daily basis, but it helps me feel more connected with my past.

I actually consider myself just simply “Canadian”, I don’t use a hyphen, but my family is made up of Italian and Dutch, and that is part of my reality as a Canadian. What it means to be Canadian is as diverse as the nationalities, peoples, and languages that make up our country, and that is one of my favourite things about being Canadian.

And because it would be irresponsible, and an abnegation of my duty to not provide you with Italian tasty recipes, here are some:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/food-trends/have-you-tried-zeppole-its-a-pastry-lovers-fever-dream/article4096172/

http://www.anitaliancanadianlife.ca/recipes/ciambelle-with-fennel/

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

 

International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day

The IMLD Poster for 2010. Others can be found here.

The IMLD Poster for 2010. Others can be found here.

Language is so much more than just “how we communicate”. Language evokes our emotions – forming our poems, stories, songs and many more powerful forms of self-expression. It shapes who we are, and it connects us to other people. Language is for more than being simply understood, it is allows us to be able to understand one another at a much deeper level.

Saturday is International Mother Language Day (IMLD), and it is a day to celebrate one’s identity. IMLD gives us an opportunity to recognize and appreciate celebrate the beauty that comes with the 6,000+ languages on earth. The comparison is often made that endangered languages are like endangered animals: we could only have five or ten, but wouldn’t the world be a whole lot less pretty and interesting without them? Our different languages shouldn’t be seen as causing confusion, or misunderstandings, they are each and every one an essential part of the fabric that makes up humanity. With each loss of a language, we lose another point-of-view to being human. We lose how that language’s speakers saw the world, and so we lose another lens with which to look upon the world.

According to the last census figures, 45% of Torontonians don’t speak English in the home. Many Canadians across the country have a Heritage language. My gramma on my mum’s side grew up speaking Dutch, my grampa grew up with an Italian-immigrant father, and my dad’s first language was Italian; his parents emigrated from Italy just before he was born. We should celebrate where we come from, and remember that our identity is shaped not just by being Thai, Cree, or French, but also by the languages that come with that heritage.

My first language is English, and it is easy to take for granted that everywhere I go, English resources surround me. However, for many, English might be the language of work, school, or exteriorities, but their Mother Language is the one used in the home, with the family, and for self-reflection.

There is a concept in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that certain things can’t even be conceived of in a different language. For example, if your language doesn’t have a term for schadenfreude, then you will have a hard time grasping the idea. The idea being roughly, “taking the guilty pleasure from the pain of others” (think people falling over on America’s Funniest Home Videos). However, this hypothesis is found to be untrue. There is no English term for sobremesa, which is a Spanish word describing the lovely and winding conversations had at the dinner table after eating; however, I think most of us can identify with the sentiment. Although the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be mostly untrue, there are certain things that are different depending on your first language. I have read Leonard Cohen translated into French, and I would argue that there is something indescribable missing when the work is translated—some important part of the beauty is translated out of the text.

This Saturday you should consider promoting, teaching, and using any languages you know how to speak. But don’t stop there! Continue on after Saturday. Don’t let it stop with one day. We should all be proud of our languages, and we should be excited to share our heritage with those around us.

So whatever your heritage is, whatever languages you speak, and wherever you come from, use International Mother Tongue Day to think about the steps have led to you being where you are today. The world is so much better with variety and diversity, and language is another way we can prove that point.

So go out and prove that point!

Council of Europe poster for Minority Language Rights

Council of Europe poster for Minority Language Rights

And, if you are in Toronto please join us at Maria A Shchuka library from 10-4 for family-friendly activities that celebrate many languages.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi