NEW YORK CITY - It is often said that Latina mothers are "nicer" in English, alluding to the fact that their personalities change when their languages do. A new study by the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, shows that bilingual Latina mothers indeed have two different cultures when they switch between languages — they are more Latin-like when speaking Spanish and more European American-like when speaking English.

Bilingual Latina mothers retain their cultural practices when speaking Spanish to their children, but switch cultural practices when they switch languages. The study conducted research on three groups of mothers, foreign born monolingual Spanish-speaking Latina mothers, foreign-born Spanish-English bilingual Latina mothers, and U.S. born English monolingual European American mothers.

Researchers recorded mothers in conversation with their children, particularly the "mom talk" during toy play with their U.S. born, 2.5 year old toddlers. Spanish-English bilingual Latina mothers were recorded twice, once in speaking English to their child and then in Spanish.

"Our findings show that it really is the heritage culture that changes the behavior and it's not about being in Latin America or being in the U.S.," said Erika Hoff, Ph.D., senior author and a professor at the FAU Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. "It is the same mother and the same child, however, they are different depending on whether they 'turn on' the Spanish switch or whether they 'turn on' the English switch."

Depending on how long the mothers have been in the U.S. immigrant mothers are increasingly American-like in their talk. One of the surprising findings in the study was the nature of the difference between the balance of mother talk to child talk among the three groups of mothers.

Spanish-speaking Latina mothers tended to talk more and ask fewer questions to their children. Consequently, their children engaged in less conversation compared to children of monolingual English-speaking European American mothers. This is in large part due to cultural practices in Latin America.

"In Latin America, adults do not elicit conversation from small children to the same extent that middle-class European American mothers do," said Hoff. "In fact, that is not the culture in many places. So, when you ask Latin American mothers to sit down with their 2.5-year-old children and play with toys or read a book, you get more 'mom' talk and less child talk. Conversely, with European American mothers, you get less mom talk and more child talk."

The study added that in Latino families, children are taught to demonstrate respect for others by behaving in a manner that doesn't disrupt the group and by actively listening to adults. This expectation contrasts with the upbringing of children in European American families, where they are encouraged to express their individuality.

"I would advise teachers and those who evaluate children of immigrant families not to make the same assumptions they would for children of U.S.born monolingual English-speaking families," said Hoff. "They are not going to be as talkative, and it is not because they know less or are less able. It is because that is what they have been taught."

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