Breaking down the language barrier in immigrant families

Breaking down the language barrier in immigrant families

ESOL services are a vital part of successful integration for many immigrant families, with these services in increasing jeopardy, it will be women and children who will suffer the most.   

Embed from Getty Images

For first generation immigrants, coming to the UK to build a life and raise a family can contain various complications. The reality is that for many families, there is a language discrepancy between the mother, who may be learning English as a second language, and her English-speaking children. This language barrier can raise significant challenges.

A mother who is not proficient in English may find it hard to engage with many aspects of life here in the U.K, significantly with her child’s schooling and education. A lack of ability and/or confidence in speaking and writing English can mean that there is less engagement; this includes not having the confidence to join discussions and groups in the school environment, not being able to engage in parents’ evenings and not being able to help with homework and understanding the course material. This lack of involvement has the potential to create a barrier between the mother and her child, and in turn this may have a detrimental effect on the child’s development and wellbeing.

In a similar vein, an inability to write in English or send emails means that communications with the child’s school might be non-existent or strained. Even though some schools may have the resources to provide translators, which is not always the case, having the self-assurance and confidence to be able to ask for this in the first place is not a given. Ultimately, the child may have to act as the translator and mediator in these scenarios, which can place a strain on the relationship between mother and child.

This role as translator/mediator also plays out in other facets of daily life with the child having to help their mother to do various tasks such as book doctor’s appointments, make important phone calls and use an English-style computer, phone or tablet for example. From the child’s perspective, there may be a frustration and/or lack of empathy towards their mother for not being able to speak the language properly and to have to always assist them with what they perceive of as basic parts of daily life. A lot of young English people, not necessarily from immigrant backgrounds, light-heartedly complain about how their mothers are useless with their phones or computers and how much patience it requires to take them through each process step by step. When you add a language barrier into the mix along with a generational digital illiteracy; it is easy to see how this exasperates the living situation.

Moreover, the differences between the dominant languages of first generation and second generation immigrants can have a detrimental effect on the mother-child relationship in a slightly different way. The child, whose native language is English, may not be able to have full and complex discussions with their mother about serious topics and issues, such as current world events or ideological concepts. Although the child may also be able to speak and understand their mother’s first language, they may not be fluent in it. Alternatively, they may reply in English as this is more natural to them; or an ad-hoc mix of both languages.

Being unable to have flowing and meaningful discussions with a parent due to a language barrier can lead to a lack of comprehension of the totality of the other person’s personality and interests. This creates a disconnect and can prove to be a huge obstacle in becoming as close with the other person as possible. Without this important foundation, a child may turn to their friends or the internet to have these significant discussions and find out information about complex questions they have; which might not always be reliable.

At JAN Trust, we see first-hand how important it is to bridge this gap. Our award-winning Web Guardians™ programme and our ESOL English language classes work in tandem to build digital literacy and English language skills. In this way, mothers are empowered to join in with important discussions, engage more in society themselves and not rely on others. This increased confidence goes towards establishing better relationships, becoming more involved in their children’s lives, and feeling more integrated and independent.

To find out about our work, please visit our website: