Extended family is a powerful language source for children

Do you know how extended family members influence children’s language repertoire?

Sometimes parents consider themselves to be the most influential agencies to children’s learning languages because they are always told about that by educators, psychologists and many other people. However, not many people understand that children’s communication with extended family members including grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins appears to be crucial for their language practices in the society. This communication, as Baker (2011) states, prepares children for different outside community practices in various domains apart from home environment. Children’s language educational practices at school vary from those in playgrounds, entertainment places, shopping centers and family or community events where they make a particular language choice, in most cases in favour of a dominant language. Family members’ understanding and support of this issue help to develop children’s confidence in their language repertoires and communication skills in the society.  The mismatch between parents and extended family views on children’s language practices results in children’s emotional stress about their own language proficiency, diminishes their communication with entire families and/or limits their social interaction.    

The difference between grandparents and parents’ views on children’s language practices is usually about mother-tongue practices in multilingual and multicultural societies. Grandparents tend to preserve mother-tongue practices and develop grandchildren’s ethnic identity by encouraging them not to mix languages in communication (Lotherington & Eamer, 2008). Elderly generation strongly assumes that fostering children’s mother-tongue practices and national identity will help to transfer linguistic and cultural heritage to future generations. However, current youth may resist these ideologies because they try to adapt to the society by communicating in languages their peers speak. The solution for this problem may be extended family involvement in school and community activities in which children’s multilingual practices are clearly observed. Thus, the whole family might change their attitudes and understand how to develop children’s language practices without generating an additional pressure to children who try to adjust to the society.

The research on Chinese family members engagement in their children’s language education in Canada has revealed that grandparents’ frequency of meeting their grandchildren directly influenced their attitudes to children’s multilingual practices of Chinese, Cantonese and English (Taylor, Bernhard, Garg, & Cummins, 2008). Grandparents who live with their children and help to raise their grandchildren communicate only in Chinese, but can understand English. On the contrary, grandparents who live separately from their children and rarely meet grandchildren appear to speak only Cantonese. Taylor et al. highlight the importance of extended family involvement and understanding of children’s multilingual and multicultural practices which develops “transnational and transgenerational webs of kinship, and cultural and faith-based communities of practice” and promotes children’s initiation in “shared ways of knowing, remembering and imagining vital to the multiple affiliations and semiotic economies through which their identities are constituted” (p. 289). Hence, language practices and ideologies, that extended family use, straightly effects to children’s development of language repertoires and identities which consequently easens or hardens their adaptation in multilingual and multicultural society.  

Do you have any personal experiences or observations of how extended family members influence children’s language repertoire?


Baker, C. (2011). Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Fifth edition (Eds.). Bristol, UK; Multilingual Matters.

Lotherington, H., & Eamer, A. (2008). Successful Kids from Immigrant Families: An Investigation of the Complex Multilingual Worlds of 10-Year-Old Gifted Writers in Suburban Toronto. International Journal of Multilingualism, 5(2), 100-121. doi:10.1080/14790710802152297

Taylor, L. K., Bernhard, J. K., Garg, S., & Cummins, J. (2008). Affirming plural belonging: Building on students’ family-based cultural and linguistic capital through multiliteracies pedagogy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 8(3), 269-294.

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