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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