Can monolingual parents have bilingual children?

 

Bildschirmfoto 2015-02-26 um 16.25.06

The answer is “yes”, but…

Many parents wonder if they can succeed in raising their children bilingually. Most of the studies of the ’60-’80 about bilingualism were about monolingual parents who wanted their children to become bilingual. Some parents would share the same mothertongue and the community language would be L2, in some other studies only one of the parents would share the community language etc..

I think that defining a monolingual parent becomes more and more difficult because talking “only” one language, i.e. being monolingual, nowadays is almost impossible – at least for all those who don’t have English as mothertongue. Everyone studies another language at some point, and will acquire some kind of knowledge in it. Therefore, being exclusively monolingual parents, living in a continuously monolingual context is almost impossible. Especially if we count dialects as languages. – If we agree with François Grosjean‘s definition of a bilingual:

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives”

we can define accordingly a monolingual:

“Monolinguals are those who use only one language (or dialect) in their everyday lives”.

 

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Every family raising bilingual children need a language plan. There are several strategies that can work for monolingual families or monolingual parents. In a (almost) monolingual situation, the strategy would look like this:

                            Parent 1                    Parent 2                    Community

 Strategy 1      Language A              Language A             Language A

Parents would speak their native language and the child would associate the second language (not indicated in this figure) with a certain place or certain person, such as special classes or trips to visit relatives or friends. With an environment not providing a regular input to the child, the parents would need to make more effort in providing exposure to the second language (cfr. playgroups in the other language, language lessons, care givers who talk the other language – and DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, books etc.).

Monolingual parents who want to raise their children bilingually but are not able to support this at home, need to reach out for help and provide a regular input from someone else. With the help of technology this is surely possible and I know many families who succeded, but in the long run, either one parent (or both) would learn the other language and the parents would need to offer regular full immersion programms to their children – during holidays etc. – to foster the learning.

If one of the parents has the knowledge of another language, but the family lives in a Language A community, one of the parents would always address the child in his or her non-native, second language.

                            Parent 1                    Parent 2                    Community

Strategy 2      Language A               Language A                 Language A

                           Language B

These first two strategies require a special effort and commitment from the parents to provide regular input in Language B, with the advantage that in Strategy 2, one parent would be the regular dialogue partner for the child. On the long run, the child (and the parent) may need more people to share this language with. Playgroups, peers, collaborative teachers and family who either share the same language or at least support the bilingual upbringing can be very beneficial.

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If both parents have the same mothertongue but live abroad, the scenario can look like this:

                            Parent 1                    Parent 2                    Community

Strategy 3       Language A              Language A             Language B

Both parents would talk Language A to the child and leave the second language (B) to the environment and school. Usually, parents in this situation would learn language B at some point and would probably also be able to understand and support their child during his learning process.

When one of the parents has some knowledge of the community language, this could be the scenario:

                            Parent 1                    Parent 2                    Community

Strategy 4       Language A              Language A             Language B

                           Language B

One parent would always talk the community language (B) with the child, while the other parent would be consistent talking the other one. Language A being the minority language in this case, parents would need to support the child by offering other opportunities to speak language A (with peers, playgroups etc.).

For all the scenarios listed here above, it would be beneficial for the bilingual child if parents would agree on a language planning, be confident, creative, commited and consistent – and flexible, if the language situation within the family changes due to a move abroad or else.

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My parents adopted strategy 3 in raising my sister and me bilingually: with German as mothertongue at home and Italian as the local language. They both learned Italian too and talked other languages (English, French and local German dialects). I can say that they succeeded: my sister and I are both bilinguals talking up to 6 languages and raising our children as bilinguals too.

 

Sign in Switzerland's four official languages

Sign in Switzerland’s four official languages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 (this post has been published (in another version) on my “other” blog expatsincebirth)

 

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