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Don’t Be Scared To Adapt Your Family Language Plan
From a Minority Language at Home parenting perspective.
Choosing a language strategy is an important decision when it comes to raising bilingual children. There are many different questions you need to ask yourself beforehand and there are many factors to consider. Fiona Dubuisson from The Bear With Wings is a native English speaker living in the UK who is also fluent in French. Together with her French speaking husband they use the MLAH method, speaking the Minority Language at Home, however adapt the strategy when they need, to suit their family situation. Fiona shares her story.
How did we decide to use MLAH?
Both my husband (Belgium French) and I (English) speak English and French fluently and we live in the UK. Prior to our son, William, being born 3 years ago, we would always converse together in French when it was just the two of us. Changing that set up would have been unnatural.
Also, I have always loved French and perhaps selfishly simply did not want to give up speaking it to my husband and child. When with non-French speakers, we would, however, speak English. So, gravitating to using the MLAH approach seemed logical.
Also, thinking about how much exposure William would get to each language was key in our decision making, as I was going to be the primary caregiver. Using OPOL – One Parent One Language strategy was eliminated by us, given I would have been the parent speaking the majority language i.e. English as the native speaker, so William would have got limited exposure to the minority language i.e. French.
Early challenges of using Minority Language at Home
We interpreted “Minority Language at Home” to require switching language to French at the door step to our family home. But we hesitated, early on, around what to do:
- When we have English only speaking visitors to our home, whether they be adults or toddlers for a play date?
- When we have French speaking only friends/family to stay with us and we venture out of the house?
- When in Belgium with my in-laws who solely speak French?
- When we go on holiday to a country where only English is spoken?
We knew consistency of the approach was important and I guess there are some very persistent, determined people who never make exceptions to the MLAH ‘rules’ – I admire that! It did pain me to start having to do so initially, but we started applying the ‘Context Method ‘, using each language in a different situation from time to time.
When in the UK, we translate a lot, trying to remain in MLAH mode as best as possible, but I had to draw a line at play dates with William’s friends. I personally found it a hindrance to child group development to speak concurrently to my son in French at home and to his friend(s) in English.
When in Belgium with my in-laws, I feel comfortable allowing the minority language to be spoken much of the time despite being outside the ‘home’, given that we all know immersion in the country is the most effective technique for acquiring a language, hence we seize the opportunity and speak French most of the time.
Given English currently dominates William’s verbal communication, I am laxer and feel less bothered if we make exceptions to speak more French than English. But it makes me uncomfortable if we speak more English than French. As a result, for example, when we go on holiday to a non- Francophone country, we have always said that the hotel/apartment is ‘home’ for the purpose of the holiday, so William continues to be exposed to the minority language.
Creating a minority language home environment is not easy
From a media perspective, again I admire those who create a 100% minority language home environment, but we have found this challenging.
With books, for example, William and I love going to the local library and whilst you can order some language books through the library service, we do borrow English books. I get given/ buy second hand books through a local mums Facebook group and they are always in English, people buy William books as presents in English etc.
We initially translated stories from English into French, but now he is recognising letters/words, we have stopped this approach. Don’t get me wrong, thanks to family/ friends in Belgium and our shopping trips on the Continent, we have a great repertoire of French books, but we have equally as many in English.
French TV, we sometimes stream from the internet but I personally do find that programmes on the English channels e.g. CBeebies are more educational and developmental, many teaching children about the world around them, how things work, science based programmes, real life experiences, as opposed to cartoons, so have swayed more towards those.
To have a house solely containing minority language media would be a sizeable financial investment and difficult for us to maintain on the basis of the above, so we are accepting the situation as it is.
Any regrets about the approach we have adopted?
No regrets at all. But how to evaluate success is not easy and can lead to doubts over approach creeping in. I guess if William was at exactly the same stage of conversation and understanding in both languages, making a clear distinction speaking French at home and English outside of home, that would be classed as 100% success under the Minority Language At Home approach
Well, we are not there…. But the approach has not ‘failed’ us either as he understands both languages to the same degree but verbalises approximately 70% English vs. 30% French, with no consistent distinction between ‘location’. So French has become a bit of a passive language. Perhaps I should be more concerned than I am?
When he started using English a lot more at home, mainly on commencing preschool, we initially started asking him to say the equivalent in French and sometimes he would, but due to the frequency at which this was occurring, it started to frustrate him, so we stopped.
Other people have suggested us saying ‘I don’t understand’ if he speaks English at home, but for me again it is a counter-productive approach. We have, however, always responded to him in French at home and always repeat what he has said in French so he hears it. We also pause regularly and let him finish our sentences which works a treat.
Whilst I am passionate about languages and second language acquisition was always going to be important for my son, I am a mummy to William and in the big picture he is 3 years old, I want him to have fun learning languages and for it not to be a hassle. I want him to talk/interact and be a child, whatever language he chooses to use.
Where are we heading next on our bilingual journey?
Things changed slightly a few weeks ago when I read an article about families who use the MLAH approach always speaking the minority language no matter where they are.
This made me reflect on our approach and we started talking about ‘slightly’ adapting our family language plan. Perhaps, in addition to at home, we could speak French outside the home too when out and about just as a family of 3 or with French speaking friends and family to increase exposure to French? We agreed that when with English friends and family outside the home and participating in English led activities, it would be more conducive to continue speaking English.
Having introduced this change very recently, William’s verbalisation of French has increased from roughly 30% of the time to 40%, steadily increasing further. Admittedly, there are French words mixed in to the English phrases, but I am hearing a lot more French vocab which is GREAT!
Advice for others
Early days, but my advice would be don’t be scared to adapt your family language plan, as it is not written in stone, is personal to your family and should be dynamic. Every situation is different and I appreciate it looks like, from this blog, we have acted contrary to the MLAH approach in several instances, which I acknowledge we have. But, the underlying approach we adopt remains MLAH, it works for us, we have just had to flex a little, trying new approaches and adapting according to what our son needs and responds to best.
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