Ned Maddrell lecture 2016: Bringing up a child through a minority language

The Ned Maddrell lecture this year was as high a calibre as any previous and just as thought provoking. The subject this year was particularly close to my heart, based on the research of Dr Cassie Smith-Christmas titled “The Affective Landscape of Intergenerational Language Transmission: A Case Study of a Scottish Gaelic-Speaking Family”. (You know it’s going to be a good research project when you see the word “affective” in the title.)

The talk was principally about how a minority language such as Gaidhlig could be used within the family to support the language passing on to future generations through the children in the family starting to learn and use the language. The subject is close to my heart, I’m planning on sending my own son to the Manx-Gaelic immersive-learning school, Bunscoill Ghaelgagh.

Dr. Smith-Christmas stayed with a Gaidhlig-speaking family and was able to record conversations which on the surface appear to be mundane but revealed how children adopt a minority language, even though it isn’t natural or easy. There were a number of takeaways from the lecture I can share.

  • Don’t let the use of the minority language become associated with authority. These can be quite easy situations to avoid. If there are authority figures in the home speaking in the minority language or if the only uses of the language become disciplinary.
  • “Recast” (a word Dr. Smith-Christian used I quite liked) the child’s words or sentences in the minority language, without judgement. Dr. Smith-Christian illustrated this with a transcript of her subject child using the Gaidhlig word “clach” for rock instead of English within an otherwise English sentence. I find this works well, particularly with nouns (for myself being able to be fast enough to recast, rather than expecting a response in the minority language.)
  • Going hand in hand with avoiding relating the use of the minority language in disciplinary or authoritarian modes, maintaining an association with the language being fun is important. Dr. Smith-Christian showed us another delightful exchange within her subject family where the child counted in Gaidhlig, again within an otherwise English sentence. I’ve found my son also loves to count things and it’s a great way to keep things fun. Meanwhile they can be learning advanced concepts such as mutations, plurals and pronunciation.
  • Children’s use of the minority language, even when a community is lucky enough to have an immersive teaching environment, is often limited to school and to authority figures such as teachers. When children socialise, they tend to use  a more liquid language such as English which is widely understandable and readily accepted across groups of friends. Therefore, reinforcement of the language outside of school is needed to help blur the lines of where the language can be heard or used. After-school clubs with similar social groups are an ideal opportunity for this.

The opportunity to learn this language transmission, both as a student of Manx-Gaelic and as a parent, was invaluable particularly as there are scant resources on the internet to help answer some of the inevitable questions that pepper a parent’s role.

The Lecture

Q&A afterwards

Post-Lecture Interview

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