How One Multilingual Parent can Pass on Two Languages
Parents raising bilingual or multilingual children usually follow a language strategy to keep things consistent. I have previously written other posts in detail on the most common ones, OPOL – One Person One Language, and MLAH – Minority Language at Home. However, there are other adaptions that families can use in specific circumstances.
For example in a family where one bilingual and multilingual parent who would like to pass on two languages. Or a single parent wanting to raise a bilingual child.
Bilingual and Multilingual parents often think that they have to choose one language to speak with their child. However, it is possible to pass on both languages if you have a good plan and can stay consistent.
It can seem like a daunting task, especially if your partner is only speaking one language with your children, and in most cases it is the community language so there is a lot of exposure.
But, it can and has been done successfully by many families. The main thing again, is consistency, and of course your own motivation.
A popular choice with multilingual parents is a language rotation. You may choose one week or two weeks, whichever works best for you. You speak Language A for one week, making sure to only use this language at all times with your children. Then the next week switch to Language B.
Many parents who choose this option usually either do something special on changeover day to mark the day and make it a big deal so they remember. Others might decorate the rooms differently, changing the books on the bookshelf, posters on the wall etc, to the target language to make sure they remember which language to speak.
Time and Place / Context
The time and place language strategy is where you choose either a time or a place to speak a specific language to your child. So it might be that you speak Language A inside the house, and Language B outside.
Or you might speak Language A when you are alone, and Language B when you are with certain people.
Another popular option is having a special room, or corner of the room dedicated to a language. So, you would place all of your books and activities in this special place.
Seek Outside Help
Don’t think you always have to go it alone, most of the time it is possible to access outside help to assist you in one of the languages, perhaps the one you think needs the most support.
Perhaps you can join a mothers group or play group, or even join an online community group for support. You can research language lessons in your area, or hire a bilingual nanny. With so much technology these days, there are also many online language resources.
Can children REALLY learn both languages well?
Just like anything, it will always depend on how much effort is put in, and how much consistency. But, if there is the need for children to use the languages they will use them.
Of course there will be the competition with your partners language and/or the community language, and it won’t be easy.
But, it is possible. If you are consistent every day and your children are practicing both languages as much as possible there is no reason they can’t learn both.
And if they don’t?
If you are struggling and it is affecting your relationship with your children you need to reassess your language goals. Your relationship with your children is not worth sacrificing for the sake of languages.
If outside help is available, take full advantage. But if not, perhaps choose one language to make your primary language together, and then set aside a time each day to teach them your second language, perhaps through books, songs and activities.
In this case your children will most likely speak your partner’s/community language, and your Language A to a native level, and then Language B will probably have enough exposure to at least speak conversational.
As your children get older you can adjust your language plan and research other ideas to eventually help improve it. Remember, some language is better than none, and not everyone will reach balanced bilingualism or multilingualism.
But there are so many benefits of learning languages even if kids don’t become completely fluent in all of them.
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we are a trilingual Family leaving in Berlin. I am Polish and my husband is Italian. We boths speak with our two years old son Daniel in our minority languages and we speak together in German.
Daniel started going to a kindergarten where he is also exposed to English(one carer to 8 speaks with children only english). Should we be worried that 4 languages could overwhelm him or it would be more difficult for him to learn community language-German? If i see he is not coming forward with German should i teach him also this language parallel with Polish?
He doesnt’t speak any language yet he understands quite a lot though.
We would be grateful for some advice, perhaps someone had similar experiences
Hi there! I am trilingual (English, fluent/semi-native French, almost fluent Spanish), while my husband speaks only English. Two questions if you don’t mind:
-Should I choose only one additional language (French or Spanish) to pass on (or at least at a time) to my son? I have struggled to choose which as I am more fluent in French, but Spanish seems perhaps more useful. Any Recommendations?
-This is hard to explain but as I’ve tried in the past to speak French or Spanish with my son, I find that it is very difficult for me to do in my everyday context. I learned both as a young child (French through immersion elementary school, Spanish through a nanny and then more in middle/high school). When I’m in a public place and happen to hear someone else speaking French or Spanish (particularly with a native accent) it’s like my brain flips a switch and I am fully fluent, with a native accent and my brain thinks in a language. But when I’m in an only-English context it is very difficult to switch, my vocabulary is very limited and I speak at more of an American high school or college student level. Is this a normal phenomenon or something you’ve heard of before? Any suggestions to address it as I’m trying to teach my son?
Chontelle Bonfiglio - Bilingualkidspot
I would love to help you with these questions but more information will be needed!
Please come join us in our community group where we can discuss in more detail!
Hello,we are a Greek family living in Barcelona Spain. We speak Greek to each other and to our baby and we have a Spanish speaking nanny for our 12 month baby. I would like to start speaking in German with our daughter since I am almost bilingual. The question is whether these will be too many languages for her since she is also exposed(not much but still) also to Catalan. Also, when is the time to change from one language to another?won’t that be strange for our little one?thank you for your help!!
Chontelle Bonfiglio - Bilingualkidspot
It seems like your little one is getting a good amount of exposure to the two languages, Greek and Spanish which is great.
Adding a third language shouldn’t be an issue, but it depends on how you would like to introduce it and also your expectations on fluency.
Since you live in Spain, Spanish shouldn’t be much of a concern as it will be everywhere. This will mean that Greek and German will be your child’s minority languages. Keeping some sort of consistency will be important in order to make sure there is adequate exposure to both languages. And if not, which you will put more importance.
I invite you to join our community group where we discuss these types of questions : https://www.facebook.com/groups/bilingualkidspot/
I look forward to seeing you there.
Hi, I am a mother of a 23 month old bilingual child and wonder about the point of ‘creating the need for the (minority) language’. As my child knows that I can speak English due to overhearing conversations with her daddy and the English community out there (we live in England), it seems strange to pretend in direct conversations with my child that I only understand German (minority language) in order to create the need for my child to communicate in German. I might not fully understand the opol approach, and must admit I haven’t read books about it all except some articles online.
So, how do I create the need for German? More ideas?
Note: my child understands everything I say in German but often chooses to reply in English as she is more exposed to English.
Your advice would be much appreciated.
Chontelle Bonfiglio - Bilingualkidspot
There is no need to “pretend” that you don’t understand. However it is important that you are consistent in replying back in German, and try to encourage your little one speak back in German too.
You can do this in many ways, for example buy her favourite books in German and read them over and over together. Play German music in the house and sing together often. Have LOTS of one on one time together where you only speak German. If you allow screen time, have it ONLY in German. We did this when we lived in Italy. We aren’t big on screen time, however if it was in English, I allowed them to watch some cartoons for a certain amount of time per day.
If you create a German environment at home when it is only the two of you together, she should eventually respond to you in German naturally 🙂
I would like to invite you into our community group for bilingual kids here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bilingualkidspot/
We are a group of parents raising multilingual kids and many are in the same situation as you 🙂
It took my daughter 4 years to start speaking only English to me. So don’t worry and believe it’s possible. 😉
The best book I’ve read about bilingual families is BE BILINGUAL (https://www.amazon.com/Be-Bilingual-Practical-Multilingual-Families/dp/9526803701). You’ll find quite a lot of useful practical advice there!