International families have a great opportunity to learn several languages. Many children learn multiple languages in the most natural way. But what if situations change, languages are not used and supported in the new environment?
Finding the right language strategy for our family is not always easy because needs and preferences change, and although we know that consistency is the key we fear that our attempt to bring up our children as balanced bilinguals will fail because we (have to) change strategy along the way.
The most common strategy is One Person One Language (OPOL) and it is used by families where parents speak two different languages.
The term of OPOL was first introduced by the french linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902. In Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language), he introduced the idea of une personne, une langue. Literally translated from the French as one person, one language. (cfr. About OPOL)
Parents who follow this strategy will talk only one language to their child which can help to prevent confusion and code-mixing.
In linguistic circles the term of OPOL is very common and is frequently used since the 1980s as a way to describe a child being brought up as a simultaneous bilingual. In these studies we find the word parent alternate with person (cfr. B. Bain and A. Yu, Cognitive consequences of raising children bilingually: One parent, one language, Canadian Journal of Psychology, vol.34(4), Dec. 1980, 304-313). This leads to confusion as the use of parent instead of person implies that the parents are the only linguistic role models for a child.
In my opinion, Grammont’s label one person one language is much more appropriate in our society. It includes also bilingual mum-mum or dad-dad families and families where one parent is absent and another person takes the caregiver-role. Moreover, it does include also other persons in our children’s life like sibilings, extended family, daycarers, nannys, babysitters etc..
This method can be very successful because it comes more natural to parents and caregivers. For the child it is a great method to immerse in both language one person at a time. The only downside can be if the child is unequally exposed to both languages. If this is the case, parents and caregivers must find a way to reinforce the habit of using the language that is more disadvantaged. This is also the case when children start attending school in another language.
Another strategy is Minority Language at Home (ML@H), which consists in speaking one or more minority languages at home. Minority languages are those languages that are not community languages. For example, if a Polish family lives in Germany, their family language would be Polish, a minority language in that country. If both parents have minority languages – for example English and French – , and they adopt OPOL, their children will become simultaneous bilinguals in both minority languages (if they keep talking them) and sequential bilinguals as they will acquire or learn the community language outside the house or family, at daycare, school etc.
The advantages for the ML@H are that it is quite clear who speaks which language to whom in the family and there is usually no need for translation – unless one of the parents doesn't understand the language of his partner.
Families who adopt this strategy may observe that their children need more time to catch up with their peers who talk the majority language (i.e. the language of their community). When children are submersed into the other language from an early stage on, they usually adapt quickly and learn the language at a healthy rate. If the parents talk the community language in the presence of their children (at home and outside home), their children might prefer the community language at some point. The reason for this is because its use is more economical for them: they know their parents understand what they're saying anyways and they need the community language to interact with peers.
ML@H families usually speak their family language independently of where they are. Some children will prefer their parents speak the community language outside the home because of their need not to be different and I personally would respected this and discuss it with the child. The reason a child refuses to talk the family language in public can have apparent reasons – peer pressure or the need to belong – but reasons can also be more serious. Maybe the child has been teased when speaking it or feels that the language is tainted with negative prejudice.
For every family opting for the ML@H strategy, it is advisable to find a language community where their children will need to speak this language also later on, and not limit it to the home environment only.
With the Time and Place (T&P) approach the focus is set on an agreed schedule. All members will decide to speak different languages with their child depending either on the Time or the Place (or both!).
Families can agree on a time when one language is used during the day and another during the evening (for example, talking German at breakfast and Italian at dinner), they can also opt to split different languages between weedays and weekends (German during the week, Italian during weekends) or speak different languages during alternating weeks or months. Using time as sole determining factor for changing language is not advisable for families with young children or busy households. Children who don't yet understand time will easily feel confused when parents switch languages without apparent and, for them, clear reason and need.
Families can also choose place as separating factor, for example if they use one language at home and one outside home or determine particular rooms for using one language or the other. – The Time and Place variant is used in immersion schools, when parents don't speak the school language at home.
The Time and Place strategy can also be used to introduce another language later on in a childs' life.
The 2 Parents 2 Languages (2P2L) strategy is usually adopted by bilingual parents. It is a natural way to use more than one language in bilingual communities and in families with many different levels of bilingualism. If done in a non organised way, this system can lead to a mixed use of language (the famous "Spanglish" in North America for example).
Annick de Houwer's studies on families with bilingual parents show that if they both parents talk their languages with their children, 79% of these children will become bilingual which is a slightly higher result compared to OPOL families (74%) (Bilingual First Language Acquisition). – The 2P2L strategy is actually a variant of OPOL for bilingual parents.
The great advantage of this system is that different matters can be discussed in different languages. Books, films, activities, experiences can be discussed in the respective language.
If languages are used in very specific contexts only, children may develop a situational vocabulary: "if the caregiver addresses the child only to make her eat, sleep or pick up her toys, in the context of kitchen, a bedroom, or a bathroom, the vocabulary of the child will be limited and the majority language will overshadow the minority language". (The Multilingual Mind, issues discussed by, for, and about People Living with Many Languages, ed. by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Praeger, London, 2003, p.116)
Whatever bilingual strategy we choose for our family situation, everyone involved (parents, caregivers, teachers, extended family etc.) should always make sure to agree on the expectations and on the time and energy we can put into this. Although speaking two or more languages to a toddler seems very feasable, keeping our children bilingual when they start going to school requires a short term and a long term plan. Of course children grow up learning more than one language all over the world without their parents having followed any kind of plans. – I am one of those children and I grew up perfectly multilingual. But I also know that it requires consistency and that there are periods in our life where one language is more dominant than the other and there are constant ups and downs.
Many parents want their children to be balanced bilinguals, i.e. that they acquire the same fluency and proficiency in at least some of the languages they learn. But life changes constantly and so do our needs to use the languages we acquire and learn along the way.
The two best ways to maintain a language during this long journey is to:
- Have a need to speak the language
If we don't have a need to talk a language, to communicate in this language with someone on a regular basis, our competence in this language will decrease. We will still be passively competent and we can reactivate our language if needed, but this language will probably become dormant.
- Keep it interesting
If we don't talk a language on a regular basis but want to keep it active to some extent, we need to find a way to keep it interesting, even if this means to "only" read it, listen to it or watch films in that language.
If we don't enjoy speaking a language and we don't have a need to do so, it will become secundary. For bilinguals who speak more than 2 languages it will happen naturally that one language becomes less important from time to time, but this is like with everything else in life. The unique advantage of fostering these languages is that whenever we need them, they are there. It might require some effort to reactivate them but we surely won't have to relearn them from scratch.
I regularly hold workshops on Parenting the Bilingual Child (0-6yo & 6-18 yo) where I help parents set up their very personal family language plan.
If you would be interested in finding out which strategies would best work for your family, you can also contact me directly at info@UtesLounge.com
or schedule a free consultation via the contact form.