Parents who want to raise their children with more than one (or two) languages, often look for ways to make this work.
A first step to find answers is to ask the right questions: What language should your child speak with whom, when and... why?
Furthermore: Who else in your community speaks your language that can support you? And: would this person be around in 1, 2, 5... 10 (!) years?
Children usually acquire multiple languages at an early age in the most natural way. But what if situations are not like we expected, if something changes, if languages are not used and supported in the way we need it?
Finding the right language strategy or strategies (!) for our family means to consciously make decisions as parents and as a group (if extended family, care-givers etc. are involved).
Parents' and childrens' needs and preferences change over time, and although we all know that consistency is a key factor for success, and every parent wants to "do the right thing", what works for one, doesn't necessarily work for the other.
This is the reason why I support multilingual families with their very personal Family Language Plan© : I assess their language situation by considering every family member, the time and energy they can invest into supporting their children's multilingualism for the coming 8 years, and advice them about best practices and most successful strategies. Book a free consultation with me to find out more
The main aim for every language strategy (and every Family Language Plan!) is to maximize the exposure to the languages our children need to acquire and learn, and to make sure that this exposure is of great quality!
For every different scenario it is important to consider that the majority language, the language of the community, the one our children are schooled in, is likely the language they will be(come) most fluent in due to the higher exposure and the broader variety of vocabulary and social situations they will be experiencing in that language.
But let's start with the family, the social unit where the whole multilingual journey begins: The family is the cornerstone for language socialization and language development (Xiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen).
©Ute Limacher-Riebold 2020
One Person One Language
The most common strategy is One Person One Language (OPOL) and it is used by families where each parent speaks another language with the child. Ideally parents would choose the language they feel most comfortable with, i.e. the one they are most spontaneous in.
There are two scenarios for this strategy:
scenario 1) Each parent speaks a different minority language
scenario 2) One parent speaks a minority language, one parent speaks the majority language (= community language)
In linguistic circles the term of OPOL is frequently used since the 1980s as a way to describe a child being brought up as a simultaneous bilingual, i.e. a child that is exposed to both languages before the age of 3. In these studies we find the word parent alternate with person (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 alternation leads to confusion as the use of parent instead of person implies that the parents are the only linguistic role models for a child.
Considering the very diverse settings our children can grow up, One Person One Language is more appropriate as it allows all kind of family settings. It includes same sex parents as well as families where another person who is not a parent of the child, takes the caregiver-role, i.e. extended family, day-carers, nannies, babysitters etc..
This strategy has been considered very successful for many years, and most parents opt for it as default strategy.
But this strategy has its downsides. In her study of 2000 families who used this strategy, Annick De Houwer demonstrated that "a full quarter of the children brought up with the approach did not become bilingual" (cit from here).
One needs also to consider family situations where everyone is in the room, sitting around the table: what languages would everyone speak? When each parent uses his or her language with the child: what language would they talk to each other? What if the child doesn't understand? What if one of the parents doesn't understand the other language and feels left out?
If parents don't speak their partner's language, they usually speak a third language among them. In order to keep the conversation and language choice as simple as possible when all together, they can decide to make the effort to learn the other language alongside their child.
This requires patience from everyone involved. Especially when the conversation is at a fast pace, some parents can feel overwhelmed and rather prefer using the third language they were used to speak with the partner.
In situations like in scenario 2) where one of the parents speaks mainly the dominant language or community language, many parents tend to prefer that language "as it makes more sense", not considering that by doing so the exposure to the minority language will probably not be enough in the long run, for their child to attain nearly native fluency.
Based on my own experience with growing up with multiple languages and raising my children the same way, and by observing my clients, I can only agree with François Grosjean when he says:
Of course, the one person–one language approach deserves to continue being an option for parents. But at the very least, it should be adapted (when that is not already the case) and a family plan should be set up which takes into account important considerations such as what is the best strategy for that particular family, when should the languages be acquired, will the child have a real need for each language, what will be the type and amount of input from each language, and what other support can the parents count on
A personalized Language Plan is part of my service as Family Language Consultant for multilingual families.
Once the child starts speaking, many families who adopted the OPOL strategy, combine it with one or more of the following strategies.
minority Language at Home
The minority Language at Home (mL@H) strategy consists in speaking one or more minority languages at home. Minority languages are those languages that are not spoken by the majority of people in the community.
For example, if a Polish family lives in Spain, their family language would be Polish, a minority language in that country.
If both parents speak the minority language at home, there is a clear separation between home and outside home. The home or minority language will become the language the family speaks in all situations: when the parents are one-on-one with the child and when the whole family is together. If the family speaks two different minority languages, like in scenario 1), if they speak each others language they can opt for one of their language as family language. If not, they are more likely to choose a third language minority language as their family language. In settings like scenario 2), it is advisable to choose the minority language as family language to guarantee enough exposure in it for the child to reach a high level of fluency.
The advantage of the mL@H strategy is that it focuses on the minority language(s) and as the exposure in those is often limited to the family or smaller part of the community, it is important for the child to understand its importance to attain higher levels of fluency. – Among the languages strategies, the mL@H is the one that has been proven to be the most successful one!
Time and Place
With the Time and Place (T&P) strategy 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!).
This strategy can be combined with the OPOL or the mL@H strategies, when there are more than two languages in the family. This strategy can be helpful for parents who:
- speak multiple languages themselves and want their children to learn them
- want to foster the partners' language
- are single and want to speak more than one language with their children
- want to introduce an additional language later
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), or choose to speak different languages during weekdays versus 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 very young children or busy households. Children who don't yet understand the concept of 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 is the typical strategy used in immersion schools, where only the school language is spoken...
2 Persons 2 Languages
The Two Persons Two Languages (2P2L) strategy is usually adopted by parents who each speak both languages and want to speak them both with the child. In my practice I have many multilingual families where parents speak more than two languages with each other. For example, one parent speaks French and German and the other one Spanish and Polish.
Many multilingual parents choose to start with speaking one language to the child during the first years, following OPOL, and add another language later.
These are the two most common scenarios of families who opt for the 2P2L strategy:
scenario 3) Each parent speaks both languages
scenario 4) Each parent speaks two languages that are different ones than the ones the partner speaks
When using the 2P2L strategy it is very important to do it in an organized and consistent way, otherwise this strategy could lead to a mixed use of language: the famous "Spanglish" in North America for example. This strategy can lead to a great success if parents manage to avoid using different languages in one sentence (= code mixing).
Annick de Houwer's studies on families with bilingual parents show that if both parents talk their languages with their children, 79% of these children will become bilingual (= be effectively using all the languages) which is a slightly higher result compared to OPOL families (74%) (Bilingual First Language Acquisition).
The great advantage of this system is that different matters can be discussed in different languages. The more topics are addressed in all the languages, the more the child will be able to talk about them in each language.
On the contrary, if languages are used in very specific contexts only, children will 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, everyone involved (parents, caregivers, teachers, extended family etc.) should always make sure to agree on the expectations and on the time and energy we all can put into this. I always say that we need a multilingual village to raise multilingual children!
What comes next?
I always remind parents that although speaking two or more languages to a toddler seems very feasible, keeping up with all our languages and making acquiring and learning that language attractive for our children requires more than strong will and a positive attitude! When our children start going to school we should redefine and agree on the short term and a long term goals.
Of course children grow up learning more than one language all over the world without their parents following any plans. But what is the success rate? Research shows that having some kind of plan and strategy contributes to successful multilingualism in families.
My mother decided to raise my sister and me with German and occasionally German dialect at home, and Italian outside of home. When I was 3 years old, I asked my mother why our neighbors would not also speak German, or French, or English: the other languages I was hearing in the community I grew up in. It was normal for me to switch between languages and to always try to at least understand the basics of the languages I was exposed to.
The road to a relatively balanced multilingualism is a bumpy one. I experienced this myself. Only when I decided to invest more time and foster my less dominant languages, I attained my language goals: to become pluriliterate in at least 5 languages. I am over 50 now and am still learning about all of them. I took this lifelong commitment very seriously and am lucky that languages are my passion.
I know that acquiring and learning languages requires dedication and consistency, that there are periods in our life where one language is more dominant than the other, that we might find one language less attractive than the other for some time (it's called "language ideology") but it surely is all worth the effort.
Many parents want their children to be fluent in no time, as balanced as possible in all their languages, i.e. that they acquire the same fluency and proficiency in the languages they learn. It is crucial to set very realistic expectations and goals! 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 speak a language, to communicate in this language with someone on a regular basis, our competence in this language will decrease. We might still be able to understand it, read it maybe and write it (if we attained that level of fluency): we can always reactivate our languages if needed! If not, this language will become "dormant". Language loss is really only happening when we completely refuse to speak and listen to that language; this usually happens when there are reasons for us to "forget" about that language.
Provide optimal input
If we don't speak (or read, or write) 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! For a certain period of time I didn't use German regularly. All I did was to read books in German, I also listened to it and watched movies in German. I kept it interesting and managed to keep it "alive" until I decided to speak it regularly again, and I succeeded. The key was to read in abundance and focus on input that was interesting and important for me!
The input in the language needs to be comprehensible and understandable to an extent that the learner can make sense of it. Please watch this video about comprehensible input (and compelling input) from Stephen Crashen. Optimal input in abundance is the key .
The best forms for optimal input are (in the video 5:46 sg) :
- Story telling with occasional translation and explanation, where stories are told in a comprehensible way. Please find more about story listening (Beniko Mason)
- Reading: by providing large amounts of easy written input, stories that are made comprehensible in a variety of ways...
For multilinguals 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 and once we have attained a certain level of fluency, we can pick up from where we left anytime later in life – with some effort, of course, but we don't have to start from scatch.
The unique advantage of fostering multiple languages is that whenever we need them, they are there! It will require some effort to reactivate them but we surely won't have to relearn them from scratch...
Here is my video about this topic on Youtube
Recommended readings: Prof. François Grosjean writes about the story behind the term in One Person One Language and Bilingual Children.