What is the best language policy?

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On this episode, a father wonders what language policy would work best for his family. Should they consider the Minority Language at Home strategy to increase the exposure? Or should they give the One Person, One Language strategy a shot?

I share my thoughts on what is more important quantity or quality of exposure!

The Question

Hello! I’m really thankful for your podcast.

My wife and I are expecting twins and we really want to raising them bilingually in English and German. We live in North Carolina, so we aren’t worried about their English. My wife grew up in Germany until the age of 9, so her German is quite fluent but might lack the sophistication of an adult speaker. I didn’t start learning German until college. I would describe my proficiency as low to mid-level intermediate. My mother-in-law lives nearby and she is a native German speaker, so we will lean on her to provide additional support. However, we are trying to decide on a strategy to use at home.

Should we use OPOL and potentially risk not providing as much exposure or should we do minority language at home, which might make it difficult for me to communicate effectively. I’m afraid that my German isn’t good enough to stay consistent in speaking it.

What are your thoughts on this? I would really appreciate any advice you could offer. Thanks for everything.

The answer

Hey there Josh,

Thank you so much for your email!

I am thrilled that you are finding the podcast helpful!  Congratulations on your twins!  You have so much to look forward to!

That’s great that you are considering raising bilingual children!  Such a great gift especially since you have some support with your mother-in-law.

For some families selecting a language policy is very straight forward!  For example, if one of the parents is monolingual then you have less options at your disposal.  However, that is not the case for all families and it sounds like you are one of them.

Right off the bat, I want to share a resource that may be helpful before I even give you my thoughts.   I have created a language decision tree for families that are having a hard time deciding which language policy to implement in their home.  The decision tree can look a little daunting at first but essentially it works around yes or no questions.  You and your wife can walk through the decision tree together.  Be as honest as you possibly can with the questions.  Really think to yourself how “comfortable” will I be if I choose this path versus the other.  It should provide you with some clarity to reflect on these questions.  You can find the decision tree at 

If you happen to need a refresher on what each of the strategies mean (beyond the more common ones like OPOL and MIHL), you can check out a blog post that I have written about it.

So on to your specific situation! 

It sounds like your wife’s fluency level would make it possible for her to speak exclusively to the children in German.  I would just flag one thing for both of you to consider.  Often times non-native speakers mention that even though they have a vast vocabulary in a target language they often struggle with Motherese, in other words the language of a mother.  The early days, weeks and months can be particularly challenging because talking to a little tiny baby is very different than talking to an older child. 

Audrey Kratovil talked about this issue on episode 43 and so did Elisabeth Alvarado on episode 111.  Both of these mamas were able to power through those early awkward moments and know continue to speak exclusively to their children, in their case in Spanish.

I am sharing this to say that as you prepare for the many aspects of a new baby, consider also reaching out to other German speakers and asking for those baby words so when the time comes it feels more natural.  I realize your wife is not a non-native speaker of German but it has been some time since that is her community language and so she may have been exposed to less examples of motherese so just sharing this particular issue just in case.  You re lucky that your mother-in-law is a native speaker so I am sure she has lots of tips for you and your wife.

Having spent a year in Germany, I can tell you there are some absolutely wonderful nursery rhymes in German that are really fun and upbeat and that your twin are surely to love in those first few months of life!

Now let’s switch gears to you and what role you will play in your language policy.

Yes, exposure to the target language is important.  You will have more exposure if you have a minority language at home than a one parent one language strategy, no doubt.  However, the quality of that exposure is just as important.  The goal you should set for yourself is to provide rich vocabulary input!

On episode 102, I shared with listeners my philosophy on language and parenting.  I am clearly an advocate for multilingualism and see it as a personal mission to help parents around the world that are raising bilingual children.  But I do think that parenting comes first.  If you think speaking to your twins exclusively in German would make it difficult for you to communicate effectively then that may not be the best strategy for you.

 Just because you cannot speak exclusively to them in German does not mean that you cannot help them on their journey with German.  There are lots of other things that you can do to still support their bilingualism while still communicating in a language that is more comfortable for you!

 Here are just three things for you to consider:

 1.       Set specific language times.

Since you do speak some German you can use this to your advantage.  Establish a time with your wife where the entire family will speak German.  You can do this daily or weekly whatever works best for your family but make a commitment that during this time only German will be spoken.  It can even be 10 minutes to start and work your way up to a longer stretch of time.  Make sure to go all in on your German during this time and hold yourself accountable.

 Start now before the twins arrive so that you when you go into survival mode those first few months you already have your routine established.  You can still have a One Parent One Language policy but weave in some language time to shift some exposure to German.  As your twins get older, they will be able to see from you what it truly means to be a multilingual individual and how you can leverage your language skills for different occasions. You can get more tips on how to continue your very own language journey on episode 110 of the podcast. 

 2.       Set some goals.  

If you have heard me on the podcast before, you know that I am a big supporter of setting goals.  Take the time now to discuss with your wife what your vision is for your twins and their bilingual development.  Visualize these goals and write them down.  Then make some goals for yourself as to how you are going to help your children achieve their vision. 

 It may seem premature to come up with goals now before they are even born but it’s still important.  You can always tweak them later as circumstances impact your vision.  When we are raising bilingual children we are going to face many forks in the road.  If you are clear on your vision and where you are headed you will know exactly if you are turning left or right when those forks come up.  This exercise will help you save your sanity, your time and maybe even your money.  You can get more tips on how to set goals on episode 104 of the podcast.

3.       Establish your support network.

At times it certainly feels like it takes a village to raise a bilingual child!  I would recommend that you take the time and enlist as much help as you can.  People around you will naturally want to help you with every day parenting issues but if you have any other German speakers in your network I would reach out to them as well.  You mentioned that your mother-in-law is a native German speaker and lives nearby! 

That is a great asset.  Make sure both you and your wife let her know that you need her help!  If she can commit to speaking exclusively to your little ones, she will be a major source of exposure to your children.  Do you have any other relatives in Germany that can help?  Even if they don’t leave near you, they can help you get your hands on German resources.

 I often hesitate when I am asked for my opinion on which language policy they should implement because it is such a personal choice.  I always hope that parents find a policy that is manageable for them and that is they can sustain through the years.  All in all, think about how you will best parent your twins and remember that not all exposure is created equal!  Quality over Quantity!

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