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Loss and Maintenance of First

Language Skills: Case Studies of


Hispanic Families in Vancouver
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Martin Guardado

Abstract: This qualitative study aims to explore the loss and main-

tenance of Spanish in Hispanic children in Vancouver from the perspective of


parents. It focuses on the experiences of Hispanic parents of children either
developing bilingually (Spanish-English) or monolingually (English). The pri-
mary method of data collection is the semi-structured interview. Data collected
in this study support the notion that first language (L1) cultural identity is
crucial to heritage language maintenance in the context of a dominant second
language (L2). However, the data contradict previous findings that a narrow
linguistic community and the input of one parent are not sufficient for L1 main-
tenance. The bilingual (i.e., L1 maintenance) children in the present study had
L1 input from only one parent and limited L1 contacts outside the home. The
data also show that the type of encouragement parents give to their children to
speak the L1 can have a facilitating or a detrimental effect. Therefore, this article
urges parents committed to L1 maintenance to promote a positive attitude in
their children and to address their affective needs accordingly.

Résumé: Cette étude qualitative avait pour but d’explorer la perte et le


maintien de l’espagnol chez des enfants hispanophones de Vancouver, du
point de vue parental. Elle visait les expériences des parents hispaniques
d’enfants qui grandissaient en devenant bilingues (espagnol-anglais) ou uni-
lingues (anglais). La principale méthode de collecte de données était l’entrevue
semi-dirigée. Les données recueillies durant l’étude appuient l’idée que, dans
le contexte d’une langue seconde dominante, l’identité culturelle en L1 est
cruciale au maintien de la langue ancestrale. Ces données contredisent toute-
fois des résultats antérieurs soutenant qu’une collectivité linguistique de taille
restreinte et la participation d’un seul parent ne suffisent pas au maintien de la
L1. Les enfants bilingues (c.-à-d. qui conservent la L1) dans la présente étude
bénéficiaient de la participation d’un seul parent et avaient des contacts limités
avec la L1 en dehors du foyer. Les données révèlent aussi que le genre d’encou-
ragement que les parents donnent à leurs enfants pour parler la L1 peut avoir
un effet facilitant ou adverse. En conséquence, cet article recommande forte-
ment aux parents qui désirent maintenir la L1 de favoriser chez leurs enfants
une attitude ouverte et de pourvoir de façon positive à leurs besoins affectifs.

© 2002 The C anadian M odern Language R eview /La R evue canadienne des langues vivantes,
58, 3 (M arch/m ars)
342 Guardado

Introduction

Language loss was arguably an under-researched topic in North America


until fairly recently, since the major emphasis in applied linguistics was
on second language acquisition and use. W ong-Fillm ore (1991) con-
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ducted one of the early studies by examining language shift among


language-minority children. Kouritzin (1997, 1999) conducted a quali-
tative study that explored questions about how and why language loss
occurs, what ages are most susceptible, the short and long term effects,
and the significance of loss to those w ho experience it. This article will
provide a synopsis of the field of first language (L1) loss and mainte-
nance and report on a qualitative study conducted with Spanish-
speaking families in Vancouver.
There is sufficient empirical work that suggests language loss does not
occur abruptly, but over a period of time (Kouritzin, 1997, 1999; M erino,
1983; W ong Fillmore, 1991). D ifferent people also experience language
loss to different degrees. Based on those differences, L1 loss and
maintenance should be seen on a continuum, rather than as a dichotomy.
A ccording to Verhoeven and Beschoten (1986; cited in Kouritzin,
1999), ‘first language loss may refer to lack of first language develop-
ment, delayed first language development, or a progressive loss of
previously-acquired language ability’ (p. 11). Arrested development of
the L1 (Schiff-M yers, 1992; Schiff-M yers, Djukic, M cGovern-Lawler, and
Perez, 1993) also falls in the category of L1 loss. Other terms often
associated with this issue are subtractive bilingualism (W . Lambert,
1981), or lack of development of the L1; semilingualism (Cummins, 1994;
Pacheco, 1983), or deficiency in both first and second languages; and
additive bilingualism , referring to the successful development of tw o
languages. In this paper I use the general term language loss to refer to the
lack or decline of ability in the L1.
The study described in this article examines what parents perceive to
be the causes of Spanish language loss among Hispanic children; what
parents perceive to be the factors that facilitate the maintenance of
Spanish; and how Spanish-speaking parents feel about their children’s
loss or maintenance of Spanish. Such questions have not been focused on
Hispanic families in Canada before. By focusing on the parents’
perspectives of L1 maintenance and loss, this article will attempt to
understand and further explain the processes of language loss and
maintenance. That understanding will be of interest to minority-
language parents living in a majority-language environment, particularly
those concerned with and committed to the transmission of their heritage
language to their children. Scholars involved with ESL and bilingual
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 343

programs will also find this work useful in their practice and future
research. Finally, society benefits from any work that examines questions
affecting families, schools, and the larger community.

Literature Review
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There is general agreement that L1 loss by individual speakers has been


an ignored research area (M erino, 1983; Oxford, 1982; Pan & Berko-
Gleason, 1986; W ong Fillmore, 1993), with some rare exceptions
(Fishman, 1966; Gaarder, 1977). Several theorists and researchers (R.
Lambert & Freed, 1982; Oxford, 1982; Pan & Berko-Gleason, 1986) now
agree that the field of language loss as a research area had its formal
beginnings at the 1980 conference on the loss of language skills orga-
nized by Richard Lambert and Barbara Freed.
Some researchers (Waas, 1993) stress that a number of investigators
prefer to focus on the success stories of language maintenance rather
than on the failures, based on the belief that by identifying the success-
determining factors, these can be promoted in other learners. However,
it could be equally justifiable to attempt to identify the underlying factors
in reported cases of language loss so other minority language speakers
in majority language environments might avoid the factors that
contribute to L1 loss.
An article published by W ong Fillmore in 1991 painted a bleak picture
for minority children learning English in the United States. W ong
Fillmore found that the younger the children when they come into
contact with the second language (L2), the greater the impact of the L2
on their L1. She conducted a large-scale study with families who spoke
minority languages and whose children had attended preschool
programs in the United States. She found that many children, particu-
larly those who started learning English before the age of five, were
already losing their L1. She discovered that many of the children had
given up their native language before mastering their second.
M any immigrant families arrive in countries where their L1 is not the
dominant language. Their children begin to learn the L1 prior to starting
school. As soon as they enter the school system however, they begin to
learn the dominant language and their L1 starts to erode. Emphasis is
placed on learning the new language as the primary m eans for social
integration. This in turn places strain on the children, who in the
beginning find themselves unable to communicate with L2 speakers at
school and elsewhere. To aggravate this situation, many well-intentioned
teachers have reportedly recom mended that the parents speak English
at home, in order not to confuse their children and to save them from
344 Guardado

difficulties in school (see, e.g., Kouritzin, 1997, 1999, 2000; Schecter &
Bayley, 1997).
Children of mixed marriages are also affected by loss or a lack of
development of language skills. A remarkable study conducted by
Kravin (1992) in the United States provides interesting insights into this
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phenomenon. Kravin studied his own Finnish-speaking six-year-old


son’s language development while learning English in an English L2
environment. The data used by the researcher included 13 hours of the
participant’s speech recorded over 10 months and the diary notes kept
by the researcher from the participant’s first six years of life. Despite
great efforts to foster the development of the child’s Finnish and
following the ‘one-person one-language’ principle for bilingual develop-
ment (Döpke, 1992; M erino, 1983; Pan & Berko-Gleason, 1986), the child
did not acquire both languages.
M erino (1983) conducted a longitudinal study with Spanish-speaking
elementary school children about the experience of growing up bilingual
in the United States. However, she reportedly found more language loss
than bilingualism among her participants. She blames the government,
educators, politicians, and parents for being concerned solely with the
prompt integration of minority language children in the school system
and their subsequent success in society in general. She contends that
relegating the children’s L1 to a secondary role results in a great cost to
the child’s future life and to society in general, a view also shared by
Kouritzin (2000). These findings seem to support the notion (which
others have also held) that the school environm ent plays a significant
role in the development of the language-use patterns of minority
language children (Chumak-Horbatsch 1999; Kouritzin, 1997, 1999).
There is currently a belief that language, identity, and culture are
inextricably related (Norton, 2000), and that language loss has a great
influence on children’s or adults’ changing identities. Some scholars have
looked at language-use patterns of minority language children in relation
to cultural identity. Schecter and Bayley (1997) undertook a qualitative
study of four families of M exican descent – two from California and two
from Texas – from a much larger study of 40 families. They attempted to
understand the families’ views of their culture and heritage language,
Spanish, and its role in their cultural identity, as well as the role of their
children’s schooling in language maintenance or loss. Schecter and
Bayley found that all four families equated L1 attrition with the loss of
cultural identity. They attributed part of the blame to the school system
and at least one of the families received specific instructions from the
school to attempt not to speak Spanish to their children. Although all the
parents in Schecter and Bayley’s study had very strong feelings about
their cultural background and were committed to the transmission of
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 345

Spanish to their children as a means of preserving their heritage and ties


with family and with their family history, some of the children were not
developing as fully bilingual. They also found that children of families
who had moved furthest up the socioeconomic ladder seemed to succeed
the least in their language maintenance.
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Intergenerational language transmission takes a lot of effort, a point


noted in Schecter and Bayley’s study. Chumak-Horbatsch’s (1999)
findings also illustrate this point. Chumak-Horbatsch reported on a 10-
year longitudinal study with Ukrainian-speaking parents living in
Toronto who were committed to helping their children maintain L1. The
children in the study were almost completely isolated from English in
their preschool years and attended a Ukrainian-only nursery school. Ten
years later, all five children in the study were attending a Ukrainian
catholic school. Based on interviews with the children and the mothers
independently, plus samples of writing, reading, speaking, and
interviews with the children’s Ukrainian teachers, Chumak-Horbatsch
was able to verify that all five children viewed themselves as bilingual;
however, with the exception of one, all the children stated that their
dominant language was English. She also reported that the participants’
bilingual experience could be described as partly additive, as they had
a high level of L1 proficiency, but did not have a strong Ukrainian
identity or extensive meaningful uses of L1.
Language loss can also be an issue for people who immigrate as
adults to an L2 environment. W aas (1993, 1997) found that a group of
German speakers who moved to Australia after the age of 16 suffered
considerable L1 loss after living in Australia for 20 years.
As can be seen in the research literature, the issue of L1 maintenance
and loss is complex. Even when parents make every effort to ensure that
children retain the home language, the results are not always completely
positive. Parental input cannot by itself ensure the acquisition of a
language (Kravin, 1997), and a larger linguistic community is always
necessary. Sometimes, though, even a linguistic community fails to pro-
vide the necessary input (Landry, Allard & Henry, 1996), as an array of
other factors also need to be present in order to ensure success.
W hen there is failure to maintain children’s L1, the consequences are
often devastating (W ong Fillmore, 1991). Kouritzin (1997, 1999) com-
pleted an oral history study with 21 people between the ages of nine and
59 who had learned English in primary school and had lost their first
languages in the process. She found that the great m ajority of par-
ticipants reported many negative familial, psychological, and social
effects.
Causes of First Language Loss
346 Guardado

Kouritzin was able to identify several m ain causes of L1 loss as reported


by her participants. They reported that devaluing of the primary
language in the community was a major cause. One of the participants
in Schecter and Bayley (1997, p. 538) also referred to ‘living in a metro-
politan area where Mexican culture was devalued’ to describe the social
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conditions under which children were expected to retain their home


language. Similarly, referring to the experience of First Nations and
Francophone Canadians, Cummins (1995) states that they have suffered
the ‘devaluation of their cultural identity and language both in the school
and wider society’ (pp. 147–148; see also Cummins & Cameron, 1994, p.
33). In the same way, two of the more pow erful factors that emerged
from Kouritzin’s study were the role of school and the lack of prestige
and/or rejection of the first language and culture by the dominant
community.
Another cause seems to be language shift in the home. Often, older
children tend to pick up the L2 in school and start speaking it to their
younger siblings. Kouritzin (1997, 1999) notes that some participants had
older siblings who were proficient in the home language, but communi-
cated only in English. Other authors have given accounts of similar cases
(see Chum ak-Horbatsch, 1999; Pan & Berko-Gleason, 1986; Thomas &
Cao, 1999).
Bilingual issues are directly inform ed by research on language
maintenance and loss. Being exposed to an L2 early in a child’s develop-
ment has been mentioned in the literature as damaging to children’s L1
development, often resulting in arrested development of that language
and sometimes delaying the full development of the L2. Schiff-M yers et
al. (1993) assessed the case of a child born in the United States whose
parents were immigrants from Uruguay. Because the child (aged six
years, seven months) w as not at the level of English proficiency of her
peers – and spoke very little Spanish, her native language – she was
classified as communication handicapped by a child study team when
she entered grade one. Schiff-M yers et al. (1993) noticed that the
language sam ples collected from the child were not characteristic of a
child with language disorders and decided to do a longitudinal study
with her. They found that after two years, her English development was
normal, although her Spanish was still very deficient.
Often parents with very limited L2 proficiency nevertheless switch to
the L2 in order to accommodate the preferences of the children (Thomas
& Cao, 1999), or in the belief that they are helping their children practice
the L2 and facilitating their integration in school, in m any cases fol-
lowing their children’s teachers’ recommendations (Kouritzin, 1997,
1999, 2000; Schecter & Bayley, 1997). It has been suggested that the
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 347

model provided by such parents would not be beneficial anyway,


considering their own incomplete mastery of the language.

Negative Consequences of First Language Loss


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Kouritzin (1997, 1999) isolated four main themes that emerged from her
participants’ life history narratives, which explain the major negative
consequences of L1 loss: eroding family relationships, poor self-image
and cultural identity, compromised school relationships, and school
performance. Of those, family relationships and self-image and cultural
identity were the most significant, although at least one participant
mentioned loss of econom ic opportunities as one of the consequences.
The participants stated that the most important familial consequence was
the loss of the extended family. They were not able to communicate with
uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, or other relatives who did not
speak English. A t least one of the participants was not even able to
communicate with his parents. That is a serious effect, because as W ong
Fillmore (1991) writes in her influential article, ‘what is lost is no less
than the means by which parents socialize their children: when parents
are unable to talk to their children, they cannot easily convey to them
their values, beliefs, understandings, or wisdom about how to cope with
their experiences’ (p. 343).
Negative self-image and contradictory cultural identity were also
serious by-products of L1 loss. Some participants blamed themselves for
having been responsible for retention of their heritage and language, and
losing it. At times they felt inferior and unintelligent as a result.
Participants sometimes felt shame for their own culture and heritage and
tried to adopt other cultural values. Other times they expressed their
feelings through racism toward more recent immigrants from their own
culture.

Som e Benefits of Bilingualism

The advantages of L1 maintenance or additive bilingualism are many. As


reported by Kouritzin (1997, 1999) and W ong Fillmore (1991), the most
significant is the ability to communicate with immediate and extended
family, especially young children and adolescents who benefit from the
support, advice, and nurturing given by parents who are not proficient
in the L2. Additionally, Cummins (1989) supports the notion that
bilingualism is causally related to increased intelligence. Bilingualism has
also been linked to economic advantages. Garcia (1995) did a large-scale
quantitative study whose findings correlate bilingualism in English and
348 Guardado

Spanish with income for certain H ispanic groups. She also states that
language loss, especially for the nonwhite, unskilled, and colonized,
‘often sinks them even further into the silence of the oppressed’ (p. 144).

The Study
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The Participants

The criterion for selecting participants for the present exploratory study
was for two of the families to have at least one child over the age of six,
fluent in English, with a considerable deficiency in Spanish and/or a
reluctance to speak it. The other two families needed to have at least one
child in the same age range fluent in both languages. The rationale was
to ensure obtaining both L1 loss and maintenance perspectives. Also,
based on previous reports (Kouritzin, 1999) that L1 loss tends to begin
around the time children enter preschool or the school system, the
minimum age of six was chosen.
The four participating families were selected through a combination
of purposive and snowball sampling. Palys (1997) states that all sampling
is ‘purposive to some degree, since identifying a target population
invariably expresses the researcher’s interests and objectives’ (p. 137).
Three of the participating families were selected using this technique.
The fourth participant, Lisa, was recruited through the snowball
sampling technique, referred by the first participant, Anthony. All the
participants were asked to select a pseudonym to protect their privacy.
In order to help readers better understand the results of this study and
for possible transferability purposes, a detailed account of the partici-
pants’ backgrounds, special characteristics (and their contexts) is
provided below, and summarized in Table 1.
The first research participant, Anthony, is a 43-year old businessman
from El Salvador who m oved to California in 1980 and to Vancouver in
1984. He is married to Valeria, also from El Salvador, a financial
consultant who speaks English and French, in addition to Spanish. They
own a house in a middle class neighborhood. Both attended Salvadorian
universities prior to immigrating, although neither completed their
program. Their son, Ricky, is eight years old and was attending a private
school at the time of the interview. He participates in several extracurric-
ular activities including piano lessons, hockey, and golf. Anthony claims
that Ricky excels in all school areas. Observations confirmed that he is,
TABLE 1 here (in separate file)
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 349

indeed, a very bright boy who has many of the abilities attributed to him
by his father. Besides, he is very able and willing to communicate in
Spanish with other children, even when he knows that they can also
speak English, his self-declared dominant language.
The second participant is C arm en, a 45-year old immigrant from
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Colombia who moved to Vancouver in 1983. Her daughter, Fay, was


born in 1984. They returned to Colombia the same year after Carmen’s
relationship with Fay’s Austrian father unexpectedly ended, but moved
back to Vancouver in 1989 when Fay was 5 years old. Fay attended
private and public elementary schools and now seems to be quite
popular in her affluent neighborhood public secondary school. She has
a passion for theatre and has perform ed at several important, but not
professional, venues in the Vancouver area. She also identifies with Latin
American culture, although her Canadian identity is more dominant. Her
Spanish is unaccented, fluent and essentially accurate. W hen she knows
that a Spanish speaker is fluent in English however, she tends to switch
over to English.
The third participants are Joel and Silvia, a middle-aged couple from
Guatemala. Joel reportedly worked as an elementary school teacher in
Guatemala and Silvia was a homemaker. At the time of their interview,
they were receiving welfare while Joel attended English classes in the
morning and Silvia cared for their three children, aged three, eight, and
11. This family has been moving back and forth between Canada and
Guatemala for the last 11 years. At the time of the study they had been
back in Canada since the summer of 1998. Their children are in ESL
classes and prefer English to Spanish, despite having had frequent
contact with their country of origin.
The fourth participant is Lisa, a 33-year old Salvadorian house-cleaner
and mother of three children, Dolores aged seven, Tony aged nine, and
Francisco aged 13. Lisa attended university in El Salvador, where she
worked to support herself from the time she was a teenager. Lisa’s family
has lived in Vancouver since 1991. Her Guatemalan husband does not
see the children since the couple separated in 1999. There is no indication
that their children are involved in any extracurricular activities, and they
appear to rely heavily on television and video games for entertainment.
They speak English at all times, to Lisa and to one another.

M ethodology

M ost of the existing research on L1 loss and maintenance has utilized a


quantitative approach (Silva-Corvalán, 1991; Landry et al., 1996; Lambert
& Taylor, 1996), or a combination of qualitative and quantitative
350 Guardado

approaches (M erino, 1983; W aas, 1997). Nevertheless, there has been a


recent increase in the use of qualitative approaches such as case studies
(Schecter & Bayley, 1997) and oral histories (Kouritzin, 1997, 1999). A
qualitative research methodology was also chosen for this study, in order
to answer the following research questions:
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1 W hat do parents perceive to be the causes of Spanish language loss


among their Hispanic children?
2 W hat do parents perceive to be the factors that facilitate the mainte-
nance of Spanish?
3 How do Spanish-speaking parents feel about their children’s loss or
maintenance of Spanish?

An interpretative approach was selected because oral history case studies


provide opportunities to explore the participants’ views in relation to the
research questions on this topic and allow themes to emerge from the
participants’ discourse, thus facilitating an understanding of their
experience as well as what they perceived to be the causes of L1 loss and
maintenance in their children. As the researcher came from the same
sociolinguistic and cultural context as the study participants (an L1-
Spanish speaker from El Salvador who has lived in Canada for 12 years),
there were advantages: easily gaining the trust of the study participants,
and thereby obtaining their ‘‘insider’’ perspectives, to name one. Of
course, it could also be argued that being a member of the same linguistic
and cultural group presents issues of bias, but all things considered, the
themes appeared to be valid and meaningful to the participants.
Semi-structured interviews were designed for the data collection. The
interview, averaging about an hour in length, was conducted in Spanish
with each participant. The interviews took place between July and
August, 2001. Each interview was tape-recorded, transcribed verbatim,
and later translated into English in its entirety. Notes were made
immediately after the interview s and also during transcription and
appended to the transcripts. Additionally, field notes were taken in the
course of the study, and used to understand the process of maintenance
and loss and to identify themes.
The information was then subjected to inductive analysis, in which the
themes and categories emerge from the data rather than being imposed
on them prior to collection. As Palys (1997) describes it, qualitative study
is iterative in nature. ‘An iterative process in one that is cyclical, but not
merely repetitive. Instead, the term also connotes increasing sophistica-
tion or change’ (p. 298). This brings images of a spiral making its way
deeper and deeper into the data. An emergent and iterative approach
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 351

was therefore used in the data collection and analysis stages, in an


attempt to go ever deeper into participants’ experiences during inter-
views. The translated transcriptions were then analyzed and categorized
according to Bogdan and Biklen’s (1998) guidelines for analyzing quali-
tative research data as well as some of the steps suggested by Ryan and
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Bernard (n.d.). Those procedures served in the development of coding


categories and the identification of emergent themes.

Results and Discussion

This section addresses the most salient points brought up by the


participants’ narratives, as reported in Guardado (2001). Of the four
families, those of Carmen and Anthony were classified as language
maintenance families, whose children were growing up bilingually; those
of Joel and Silvia and Lisa were classified as language loss
families,whose children were already losing Spanish.
The six major themes that emerged were: (a) the role of the L1 culture;
(b) encouragement to speak the L1; (c) consequences of L1 loss and
maintenance; (d) optimism about L1 development; (e) importance of L1
literacy; and (f) L1 community. In this section the results of the research
questions are presented along with a discussion of the findings.

The Role of the L1 Culture

The L1 culture played a crucial role in the maintenance or non-


maintenance of Spanish for the participating families. Parents described
their attachment to the Hispanic culture and family roots at many points
in their stories. Anthony began his story by addressing his cultural
identity, saying ‘I am very proud of my origin and want my son to know
where I come from and perhaps then he will value it.’ He also stated that
his son Ricky was also interested in learning about his father’s cultural
identity: ‘he asks m e a lot about my background and I tell him stories of
when I was a child.’ Despite considering himself an English speaker,
Ricky’s father reported that his son has a very strong Hispanic identity,
and ‘is very proud of his background.’
It has repeatedly come up in the literature that emotional ties with the
L1 culture is one of the most important factors in L1 maintenance.
According to Carmen, Fay has always been attached to Colombia and
everything else from Latin America: ‘she always had a very positive at-
titude towards our culture.’ Contrary to the participants in Chumak-Hor-
batsch’s (1999) longitudinal study who failed to develop a strong L1
identity, despite having been always involved with Ukrainian, Fay
seemed to identify with her culture. Carmen said ‘her identity with it is
352 Guardado

more like one of nostalgia. Nostalgia for what she lived and what she’d
like to live.’
A ccording to Carm en, pop culture associated with the L1 is an
important and positive influence in identity formation:
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I think we need to give credit to those singers, actors and actresses from
different countries in Latin America, who are succeeding here. The
recognition that these artists are receiving from the industry has an impact
on Hispanic kids, who again want to be Latinos and want to identify
themselves with a culture that is accepted and in fashion. Kids tend to
follow trends. (Guardado, 2001)

Indeed, Ricky chose his pseudonym because of Ricky M artin, the Latin
pop star, which supports Carmen’s opinion that Latin pop culture has a
positive effect on children’s identities.
Parents less successful in L1 maintenance, Joel and Silvia and Lisa,
also reported having a strong cultural identity, but were not so emphatic
about their children’s Hispanic identity. Rather, they emphasized that
their children needed to learn the L1, but more as an ideal. Joel and
Silvia, for example, felt that ‘it’s the legacy of their parents and they have
to speak the language of their parents. The first language is the basis of
the culture; it’s part of the culture’. Similarly, Lisa said ‘I think that it’s
important for children to develop the two languages. Firstly, because
they shouldn’t lose their home language, their background.’
In addition to popular culture, one of the facilitating factors for the
development of children’s L1 identity seems to be the use of L1
children’s literature and songs. Fay’s m other stated ‘we would read
children’s stories in Spanish. We also had children’s songs in Spanish from
different Latin American countries, which we listened to very frequently’.
In Fay’s case, she had clearly been very attached to her culture, and
Carmen believed that it had been one of the most important factors in her
daughter’s maintenance of the language: ‘I don’t think I can separate the
affective aspect from the language, and I definitely think that’s what has
had the most influence on her language maintenance.’
Children who grow up in an L2 cultural environment are sometimes
given difficult responsibilities by their parents. Two of the participants
viewed their children as ambassadors of the L1 culture:

Carmen: We also need to teach them that the language that we speak is a
language that represents not only our family and our own country, but
also a whole continent. That continent deserves to be represented in the
best possible way.
Anthony: Our children will be our representatives in this society in the
future. Why not allow them to represent us in a dignifying way? That’s
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 353

my opinion.

One of the areas that show s the biggest distinction between the main-
tenance and non-maintenance fam ilies is in their perception of their
children’s L1 ability. Although there were several opportunities to ob-
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serve the children in their natural environment prior to and after the
interviews, and their language levels were verified, the most striking
assessments of language loss came from the parents. Silvia reported that
‘after three years living here, they’ve lost a lot of it. English is their
dominant language now.’ Lisa also noted the shift in language abilities:
‘their English is definitely much better than their Spanish. They have
great difficulty, and speak a Tarzan-like Spanish.’
Even more striking was the fact that Joel and Silvia explained how
their children’s dominant language was English, but that they were still
in an ESL program, which suggests that they might have been at a stage
somewhere between subtractive bilingualism and semilingualism. Silvia
noted that ‘they speak English better than Spanish, but in school they’re
in ESL classes.’
That is a serious situation, considering that they had only lived in
Vancouver for three consecutive years, after frequent trips between
Canada and Guatemala. It is possible that the constant interruption and
shift of language development had a negative impact on them. Although
there are cases where Hispanic children have gone through similar stages
(Schiff-M yers et al., 1993), they have reached a normal development by
age eight. In the case of Joel and Silvia’s children, Diana was already
eight and Arturo was eleven.

Encouragement to Speak the L1

Another contrast between the stories of maintenance and loss is in the


way parents have attempted to motivate their children. In the
maintenance stories of my participants, the parents used positive and
entertaining methods and encouraged their children to speak the L1. For
example, Anthony said to his child ‘I know that you’re an English
speaker, but I like to speak Spanish. Let’s speak Spanish at home at least.’
Carmen encouraged her child by saying ‘honey, why don’t we speak
Spanish?’ In contrast to those examples, the following quotes illustrate
how the parents in the language loss narratives used more authoritarian
discourse. Joel said ‘we demand that they speak Spanish here at home.
W e tell them that they must speak it,’ while Lisa reported ‘I try to force
them to speak Spanish to me, but they never do it.’ It is clear from these
examples that the type of encouragement that parents give to their
children to speak the L1 can have either a facilitating or detrimental
354 Guardado

effect.

Consequences of L1 Loss and Maintenance

Among all the parents, motives for having their children learn Spanish
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seemed quite similar, although the outcomes were very different. A


com mon theme in all stories was the parents’ belief that bilingualism
would provide future economic opportunities for their children,
consistent with findings in Garcia (1995) and reports by younger
participants in Kouritzin’s (1999) study. The parents said:

Anthony: The way I look at it, in the future Latin America will be a huge
market and [my son] will have the opportunity to travel anywhere in
Latin America on business and do better than anyone who only speaks
English.

Carmen: One of the advantages of being bilingual is that it opens up new


horizons at the employment level.

Joel: We think that speaking two languages makes [our children] better.
They would have better job opportunities in the future.

Lisa: They’ll also have better opportunities.

It is interesting to note that only the language maintenance families


had comments about identity, moral, and mental development issues
associated with the loss or maintenance of the L1:

Anthony: It’s an identity loss. Moral values. All that is lost. And that’s
only an example of what’s lost. The culture. The complete identity of the
roots of the parents, all that is lost, because of ignorance.

Carmen: At the mental development level, you have the possibility of


doing analyses through two cultures, two different visions, which I believe
is very enriching for anyone. When children have a second language, they
are able to value other cultures and other kids that speak other languages,
besides English.

One question for future research is whether parents believe that


developing the L1 will aid or impede their children’s academ ic
perform ance or social development (Kouritzin, 1999). I believe that all
the participants in this study have addressed at least part of that
question. Some of the participants also expressed that it would aid their
children in their social development.
Optimism about L1 Development
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 355

Also interesting is the fact that all four fam ilies were certain of their
children’s progress in Spanish and about their future success with it:

Anthony: He continues to develop his Spanish. He continues to learn new


vocabulary. He is learning beyond my expectations.
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Carmen: Fay’s Spanish development continues. I don’t think that she’s not
progressing. She continues to develop her vocabulary in Spanish because
every time she makes a mistake, she’s corrected, either by me or someone
else. Her attitude is very positive about it. I don’t think that she’ll have
difficulties with the Spanish language in the future.

The following quote also reflected the L1 loss families’ optimism:

Silvia: We think that they’ll continue to make progress in Spanish and we


don’t think that [Arturo and Diana will] move along too slowly. We
always speak Spanish and continue to teach them everyday, so we don’t
think that they’re stuck; they keep making progress.

If Arturo and Diana have lost Spanish to a great extent in these first few
years in Canada, one might feel that the longer they are exposed to
English, the more they will probably lose their L1. Yet Silvia’s optimism
remains strong.

Importance of L1 Literacy

All four families, irrespective of their current degree of success with


Spanish orality or literacy, valued reading and writing in Spanish. None
of the children in the language loss families had any L1 literacy skills, but
their parents stated that literacy was one of their priorities for the near
future.

Anthony: We had planned to teach him to read and write in Spanish once
he was seven years old, but suddenly, he started doing it all by himself.

Carmen: One day she said to me, ‘Mommy, let me read this to you.’ I just
about fainted. ‘Who taught you?’ I asked. She had taught herself. Such
was her interest in the language.

Silvia: We want our children to learn to read and to write in Spanish.

Lisa: None of them know how to read or write in Spanish.


The children in both cases of language maintenance could read and
write in Spanish, and even more interestingly, both had taught
356 Guardado

themselves to do so. In contrast, the children in the language loss families


did not know how, and although their parents claimed to be very
concerned and interested in their literacy in Spanish, neither family had
taken steps toward that goal.

L1 Community
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The need to use Spanish in all areas of daily life was a very common
theme in the interviews:

Anthony: Little by little, you teach them to be sure of themselves, to


respect others, and all that helps them develop a solid personality, and in
that process they get the language.

Carmen: It has to be used widely in all aspects of daily life, as if we lived


in our own country.

Joel: Parents should speak the first language to their children all the time.
Whenever they talk about anything, whenever they tell them to do
something and in all everyday life situations.

Nonetheless, at least one family also realized that the opportunities


for L1 practice provided by the home were limited:

Silvia: We have concluded that just by learning from us at home is not


going to be enough for them to develop it. But if parents never speak
Spanish to them, they lose it all.

This conclusion reflects and supports Kravin’s (1992) finding that the
input of one parent is not enough for the L1 to develop; contrary to
Kravin’s findings, however, two of the families in this study, Fay’s and
Ricky’s, were able to successfully help their children maintain the L1
through input provided by one parent. In Ricky’s case, he was able to
maintain the language even without trips to the country and L1 cultural
environment of his parents, in contrast with Kravin’s participant who
made three trips to Finland in a period of three years, spending almost
seven months there. The following quotes by Anthony and Carmen
illustrate this point:

Anthony: The time we are together is from the time he gets up in the morn-
ing until I drive him to school. At night, I get home around suppertime, we
have supper together and an hour later I put him to bed, that’s all.
Carmen: In the last 12 years, I have been her basic contact with Spanish.
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 357

All the parents agreed that there was a very small Hispanic linguistic
com munity available to them in Vancouver:

Silvia: They speak Spanish only when they get home and have dinner.
The rest of the time it’s only English.
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Anthony: All his friends are English-speaking. Basically, he only speaks


Spanish with me, because his mother talks to him in English.

Lisa: Basically, they only speak Spanish with me, my neighbor and my
sister. I believe that the reason they’re losing Spanish is because they’re
outside the house most of the time and all their friends speak English.

Having Hispanic friends did not seem to provide any advantages for
L1 practice, for all parents reported that their children spoke English in
all cases:

Carmen: She has about five Latin friends, but she speaks English with all
of them.

Silvia: They don’t have many Hispanic friends, and the ones they have,
only speak English with them. At home they speak only English among
themselves; they refuse to speak Spanish.

Lisa: They have some Spanish-speaking friends. The problem is that they
speak English among themselves, too.

In her 1999 study, Kouritzin asked whose responsibility L1


maintenance was – families’, schools’, or society’s. From the stories in the
present study it can be inferred that parents placed the responsibility on
themselves, although they acknowledged the lack of a linguistic
com munity was a barrier.
The quotations above also seem to partly answer Kouritzin’s question
of why people stop speaking a language and start speaking a different
one. It is clear that as children start to socialize with a wider circle
outside the family (one that is dominated by a different language), that
circle begins to force the children to make the shift. Consequently, as
parents above reported, their children spend from 80 to 95% of their time
speaking English.
Another important finding of this study concerned the socioeconomic
status of the parents. Although no socioeconomic scales were used, and
no numerical data collected, simple observation of all and
acquaintanceship with most of the participants for several years revealed
that the children who maintained Spanish were the children of the
parents that had a higher educational background and better
358 Guardado

socioeconomic status. However, this finding contradicts results obtained


by Schecter and Bayley (1997). In their study of Hispanic families they
found that the families who had moved furthest up the socioeconomic
ladder had been the least successful in maintaining Spanish. This point
raises the question of how Texas and California (Schecter and Bayley’s
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areas of study) differ from British Columbia in terms of environments in


which to maintain L1 skills. Obviously, this is an issue that warrants
further study, but the local contexts and possible differences in the status
and availability of Spanish input in these locations had a probable impact
on the results. The backgrounds of the participants in this study and
those of Schecter and Bayley were very different (the latter’s participants
were all of M exican descent), as were their previous life experiences and
personal characteristics.
A nother point to consider is that the children who m aintained
Spanish, Fay and Ricky, had a strong L1 identity, in contrast to Chum ak-
Horbatsch (1999), whose participants lacked a strong Ukrainian identity.
The explanation in light of the present study is that Chumak-Horbatsch’s
preschooler participants were largely removed from English-speaking
environments and had strict rules of Ukrainian use at home. Besides,
they always attended Ukrainian schools and were to a great extent
isolated from activities in the English-speaking community. A tentative
explanation is that those children resented having had their L1 imposed
on them to such an extent (isolating them from their English-speaking
peers) and therefore rejected the culture as a defense mechanism. In the
present study, Fay and Ricky never had Spanish imposed on them, but
rather, were made aware of its beauty through special moments with
their parents. They were even given the option to not speak it when they
did not feel comfortable doing so. Thus, they were encouraged, but not
forced, to speak the language. Another important detail is that the
language maintenance families had only one child, whereas the other
families had three. The fact that the children spoke English with their
siblings seemed to affect the language-use patterns at home.
Finally, the fam ilies’ length of residence in Canada was another
important factor. Although it might be counter-intuitive, the families that
had lived in Canada the longest were the most successful in L1
maintenance.

Conclusions and Implications

Based on the interviews with participating families, it appears that to the


children of these fam ilies, language maintenance meant more than
retaining their L1. Spanish represents songs, laughter, stories, affect,
family, history and the source of meaning-making in life.1 Although there
Loss and M aintenance of First Language Skills 359

is agreement among some researchers, theorists, and intellectuals that


language maintenance should be the responsibility of home, school, and
community (see, e.g., Merino, 1983), all the participating families in this
study firmly placed m ost of the responsibility on the parents. The most
common type of motivating factor for transmission of the L1 in all cases
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was the economic benefits they associated with bilingualism. They also
agreed that the L1 culture, identity, and family relationships were
important reasons for maintaining Spanish.
A nother important result w as that the nature and tone of the dis-
course employed to persuade children to speak the L1 may become
either a facilitating or a detrimental factor. Hence, it is essential that pa-
rents committed to L1 m aintenance promote a positive attitude in their
children and address their affective needs accordingly.
The research questions posed at the beginning of this article were
partially answered. To summarize, the questions sought to determine the
causes of L1 loss and maintenance and also the parents’ perceptions of
their children’s L1 loss and maintenance. One of the main causes of L1
loss appears to be the failure of Hispanic parents to promote a strong L1
identity in their children. The parents in the L1 maintenance families
stated that it is crucial to nurture the affective domain of children in
order to foster in them a positive attitude toward the L1. The L1 loss
families blam ed the lack of a wide L1 community as a major cause of
their children’s L1 loss. The four families associated L1 maintenance with
econom ic benefits; however, the maintenance families strongly
associated it with identity, and moral and mental development as well.
The L1 loss families acknowledged their children’s L1 loss, but expressed
confidence in their future success developing it. The L1 maintenance
fam ilies were satisfied with their success in helping their children
maintain the L1 and expected them to become successful members in the
heritage culture and ongoing users of the L1 in their adult lives.
Several new questions raised by this study need to be explored in
further research in order to better understand the ‘maintenance versus
loss’ phenomena, namely: W hy do some people develop strong L1
identities while others do not? W hy is L1 input from one parent enough
for maintenance (or acquisition) for some but not for others? W hy do
some families with high socioeconomic status succeed in L1 maintenance
while others do not? In what ways are the families, contexts, and
findings in the study conducted by Schecter and Bayley (1997) different
from those in this study? W hy do some parents choose to adopt L2 and
not L1 for home use?
Also, large-scale and longitudinal studies using sim ilar, and distinct,
methodologies are needed. Finally, the participants in this multiple case
360 Guardado

study were not necessarily representative of the general Hispanic


population. As well, it is impossible to know for certain how similar or
dissim ilar other families from Hispanic backgrounds might be (in
regard to language loss versus m aintenance). Given that the scope of the
study was limited to four families, the results are only applicable to the
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families who participated. However, the description of the setting,


participants, and the themes that emerged, together with other
researchers’ findings on this topic, provide a basis for readers and other
researchers to consider the transferability or credibility of the findings.
These can then be compared to other fam ilies and help establish a
stronger conceptual understanding of L1 loss.

Martin Guardado (Jose Martin Guardado Hernandez) is a graduate from the


Master of Education in TESL program at the University of British Columbia.
He has taught in the U.S., El Salvador and Canada. He is currently teaching in
the UBC-Ritsumeikan Academic Exchange Program at the University of
British Columbia.

Ackowledgements

My deep appreciation goes to Dr. Margaret Early and Dr. Lee Gunderson for
their mentorship and insights throughout the course of the original research. I
also thank the two anonymous CMLR reviewers for their insightful
comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. I am also
indebted to Dr. Patsy Duff for her generous assistance in the revision of the
final version.

Note

1 I thank Diane Potts (personal communication, July 27, 2001), for this
observation.

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Loss and M aintena


TABLE 1
Summary of Family Profiles
Number Country Present Education Length Place of
Participant Family of of socioeconomic in their of children's
(parent) status children origin status country residence birth
Language Anthony Intact 1 El Salvador Middle class Advanced 17 years Canada
Maintenance family (businessman) university
Families courses
Valeria Financial
consultant

Carmen Single 1 Colombia Professional University 13 years Canada


parent graduate

Language Joel Intact 3 Guatemala BC Benefits Joel: High 8 years Guatemala: 2


Loss family recipients School Canada: 1
Families (poverty line) Diploma
(equivalent)
Silvia Silvia: Grade
nine

Lisa Single 3 El Salvador Homemaker/house Some 10 years El Salva-


parent cleaner university dor: 1
(poverty line) Guatemala: 1
Canada: 1