Studying Family Language Policy

The research field of FLP is a rather new one, although it is closely connected to other bilingualism studies. As King et al. (2008) mention “The family unit [--] can be seen as a site in which language ideologies are both formed and enacted through caregiver-child interactions” (p. 914).

In this study, FLP is understood as a family’s opinions and attitudes on multilingualism, and the everyday practices the family employs. Those attitudes, opinions and practices can be both explicit and implicit (King et al. 2008). We will study explicit FLP through questionnaires given to both the children and their families. The implicit will surface through observation of the interactive situations within the families.

Spolsky’s (2004) language policy includes three components: language beliefs or ideologies, language practices, and language planning or management. Schwartz and Verschik (2013) have pointed out the importance of researching multilingualism both at the micro and macro levels. Many researchers demand micro-level approaches, because what happens at the micro level can be generalized to the macro level (Schwartz and Verschik 2013, p. 4).

While studying Swedish-Finnish bilingual families, Palviainen and Boyd (2013) found that the families’ language policies were a result of both explicit planning and unplanned practices. Their findings also showed that the children played a major role in shaping the FLP. In addition, Haque (2011, p. 58) claims that the language policies of a family are not necessarily explicit, and that the policies vary from family to family, despite the official language policy. Gafaranga (2010, p. 245) stresses that such studies are needed which observe the role of children as interaction partners from a language-shift perspective.

According to Tuominen (1999), who studied multilingual families in the USA, some of the factors contributing to the positive development of children into bilingual speakers may be the existence of a minority language community and parental involvement in its activities, the ability of both parents to use the majority language, the tertiary education of the parents, wealth or resources making it possible to invest in bilingualism, the parent’s gender, and the children’s individual characteristics. Tuominen stresses that the children’s attitude in the studied families was of high importance (1999, p. 68). Many families changed their language to English because of the children’s initiative. Tuominen’s (1999) results show that parents who had mastered the majority language (i.e. English) well but had decided not to use it at home succeeded better in transferring the minority language to their children.

Would the results have been different if the parents’ mother tongue had been relatively small, internationally less used languages, and if the majority language had not been English - as was the case in Tuominen’s study - and thus the language power relations had been more balanced? The multilingual adolescents of Estonia in Doyle’s (2013) study mentioned that it was essential to know Estonian in Estonia, but that in the rest of the world the language was useless.

As discussed above, children play an important role in the formation of the FLP. One of the important functions of this study is to present children’s bilingualism and its development, and to map out the opinions of these children. According to Schwartz and Verchik (2013), studies published so far have not concentrated on the perspective that children are also active participants in the language socialization process, though Ochs and Schieffelin (1994) refer to children’s agency in their language socialization theory. According to Fogle (2013), there are some recent studies (De Houwer 2010) where the active role of children in forming the FLP has been stressed.

Gafaranga (2010) concentrates on family interaction situations, describing the interactional order within families and pointing out how in the practice of medium or language negotiation (Auer 1984, 1995) children manage to push through their medium request through their own language preferences. Gafaranga's study describes “how key features of medium request can be explained by reference to the prevailing macro-sociological order [--] and the manner in which the macrosociological order can be seen as talked into being in the micro-conversational order” (Gafaranga 2010, p. 243). His study focuses on specific practices in adult- child interaction in language-shift situations, while our focus is on those same practices in a situation where families are trying to raise their children to be bilingual.

Lanza’s (2001) classification of conversational strategies indicated that the parent may switch his/her language to suit the one the child is using, which means that the child makes the decision about which language is used in interactions. At the same time, children may negotiate regarding the FLP and strengthen their parents’ language choices when they sense what is acceptable and what is not (Palviainen and Boyd 2013).

As we approach code-switching through conversation analysis (see Auer 1998), and thus we are focusing on FLP on the micro-level, we can also better investigate children’s roles in bilingual interactions.

 
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