Bidirectional Language Learning in Migrant Families

Our newest PhD, Dr Shiva Motaghi Tabari (3rd from left)

The Language on the Move team is proud to announce another freshly-minted PhD in our midst! Dr Shiva Motaghi Tabari graduated from Macquarie University yesterday and was awarded her PhD for a thesis about “Bidirectional Language Learning in Migrant Families“. The thesis is available for open access via our PhD Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Shiva!


The process of migration to and settlement in a new country entails linguistic, cultural and identity changes and adjustments. These changes and adjustments at an individual level are related to changes and adjustments in the family. This thesis offers a qualitative exploration of such changes and adjustments in migrant families in Australia by focusing on their language learning and use processes.

Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, the study draws on concepts from family studies, particularly the notion of ‘bidirectionality’, as well as sociocultural theories related to second language acquisition within the poststructuralist paradigm. The emphasis is on the ways in which language learning and use in the family relates to wider social and political contexts and language ideologies.

Data for the study come from semi-structured in-depth interviews with nineteen migrant families of Persian background in Australia, including thirty-three parents and twenty-one children.

Overall, the findings of the study show that language socialisation processes within the family in migration contexts are complex and intricately interwoven with parental and child language beliefs and attitudes, which in turn are influenced by language ideologies and attitudes prevalent in the wider society.

Specifically, the research addresses four research questions. First, parents’ experiences of language learning and use before migration are examined. Findings demonstrate how participants’ multiple desires for English learning were socially shaped, and how they invested into English language learning at different points in time, particularly with the prospect of an imagined future in Australia and upward socioeconomic mobility. Second, parents’ experiences of language learning and use after migration are explored. Findings suggest that under the influence of ideological forces in the wider society, particularly those related to the ‘native/non-native speaker’ dichotomy, learners may perpetually be perceived, by themselves and by others, as deficient language speakers and peripheral members in the new society.

After analysing parental language learning and use experiences, children’s experiences of language learning and use are examined. Children’s English language learning trajectories are diverse and relate to the degrees of English competence and the age of participants at the time of arrival. Children exercise their agency in different ways to learn the new language and to become a legitimate member in their new communities of practice. Finally, the thesis explores how parents’ and children’s language learning and use intersect. Language ideologies and the imbalanced values attributed to languages along with inequitable power relations determine the conditions under which parents struggle to achieve bilingual outcomes both for themselves and for their children.

Overall, the study argues for a holistic approach to investigations of language socialisation processes in migrant families and problematises the ways in which language beliefs, attitudes, and practices of parents and their children are shaped by the wider social and ideological context. The study has multiple implications for both adult and child language learning, parent-child interactions in migration contexts, and Australian migration studies.

Advances in sociolinguistic knowledge

Bidirectional Language Learning in Migrant Families advances sociolinguistic knowledge in at least three distinct ways:

Conceptually, the focus on bidirectionality in language learning is highly innovative given that language learning continues to be widely seen as something the individual undertakes. Usually, where language learning directions are considered, they are seen to flow from teacher to student or from parent to child. By examining how families engage in language learning as a group and by also considering child influences on parental language learning the thesis breaks new ground conceptually.

Methodologically, the holistic approach to data collection from children and parents, both individually and in groups, extends qualitative interview-based research to include an interactional dimension that is often missing from this kind of approach.

Sociologically, the research advances our knowledge of Persian-speaking skilled migrants to Australia, an emerging but rapidly growing community. By examining pre- and post-migration language learning experiences the thesis illuminates the ideological and practical bases for the language learning trajectories of this group once they have settled in Australia.

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  • Sadami Konchi

    Tons of Congrats, Shiva!!! Bloom out! Wow, I admire your hard work and so happy for you! Enjoy your research, teaching and academic life. Best wishes, Sadami

  • Shaun Lajevardi

    Dr Shiva a big congratulations to you and your family. Amazing results! You make us proud and all Persians alike.
    Best wishes for future endeavors. Olivia and Shahab

  • Jay Mi Tan

    This is indeed a very good research, and also very relevant, as the number of migrants in Australia are increasing. I especially like the multidisciplinary approach used to determine the relations between language learning and the wider social contexts. It is indeed true that different individuals form different beliefs, values and expectations of a language. Something that might be ‘right’ for one, may not be ‘right’ for the other. As migrants are mostly shaped from their country of origin, there are often difficulties faced in a foreign country; different slang/accent, use of colloquials, different cultures, etc. Hence, there is a need to identify, learn and adapt to these external influences of the wider social contexts to be able to communicate effectively.

    A relevant scenario that I have recently heard from a friend: she recently migrated to Australia from China, and she has enrolled her 3 year old daughter in a child care centre. Since migrating, she has resorted to speaking in English to her daughter. However, the child care teacher told her to speak in their mother tongue at home. This is because in the teachers words “we teach better English in schools, it is our responsibility to teach your child the best”. Some parents may find this offensive, but the teacher made a point. The variety of English taught is based on the Australian context, which is different than the variety of English the parent knows.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    It is quite interesting that while there is a large body of research in second language learning focusing on the institutional settings, this study shifted to family contexts. The involvement of parents in children’s language learning processes could be influential. I am really interested in the way the researcher analyzed and compared the children’s language learning histories and their parents’ ones to discover the social dimensions that affect the learning. The results reveal that language, culture, and thought interrelate to each other. The empirical research likely provides more evidence for Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity.

  • Sara

    Great work Dr. Shiva. The methodological holistic approach of including the whole family and the bidirectional study seems to help bridge this gap. To help us better understand what shapes parents (adult migrant learners) beliefs and attitudes pre and post migration is very important. I am interested to see how effective this approach is to examine other migrant families from various linguistic backgrounds particularly the minority groups. Those belonging to the growing community from asian backgrounds and their varying degrees of integration into the western culture and how the results correlate to support this.