Choosing the Language Strategy for your Family

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My husband Todd and I knew early on in our relationship that we would raise our kids bilingual. When Little Peanut was born and the time came to make the decision on what strategy to use to raise her, the answer was very simple for us. I would speak Spanish to her and my husband would speak in English.

We did not know there was an official name for it or that there was a lot of research behind it. We just knew that since I was the one fluent in Spanish, the duty would fall on me to pass my mother tongue to our children while Todd would support it anyway way he could. However, the decision is not always straight forward for all families looking to raise their children in a multilingual setting and so I wanted to spend some time describing the most popular strategies.

Strategy

Most families will use one of the two following strategies

One Parent – One Language Method (OPOL)

The title for this method leaves very little to the imagination. In this strategy, one parent speaks one language consistently to the children while the other speaks a second one. This method allows for simultaneous bilingualism as children learn two languages at the same time.

Typically with OPOL, parents use their mother tongue to communicate with the children. However, this is not always the case for all families. Michele Cherie discussed how she is speaking French as a non-native with her children on Episode 3.

Minority Language at Home
When using this method, both parents are using a language at home to communicate with the children that is different from the one used in the community. This is a great strategy to ensure that your children are getting a significant amount of exposure in the minority language. The majority language is usually learned from peers, care givers, other family members and the community in general.

There are instances where both parents speak the same language to the children, yet they speak a different language to each other. In a future podcast, Andrey Kneller will discuss how he and his wife consistently speak Russian to their daughter yet they speak English to each other.

Dr. François Grosjean has also described three other strategies that although less commonly used may be more applicable to your family

 

One Language First

For this approach, parents teach their children the minority language at home. Once they feel that the children have firmly established the minority language they begin to introduce an alternative language. This transition typically occurs during the ages of four and five. Adriana Zoder, blogger at Homeschool Ways will share on a future episode how she uses this strategy with her children to teach them French now that they have mastered Romanian.

Language-Time
When using this strategy, the parents intentionally determine specific times to use one language and times to speak another language. It is worth noting that this strategy can be mixed and matched with another. In other words, one parent can choose to split their time between two languages while the other sticks to just one. The key here is to be very specific about the time distinctions and ensuring that these distinctions are clear for all family members.

Free-Alternation
For this last approach, family members use two or more languages interchangeably and let factors like the topic of conversation or situation determine the language spoken. Check back for episode 4, where Dr. Brenda Gorman described how her husband at times used this strategy when speaking about soccer and sports in general with his children.

How is OPOL working in our home?

Reading with Daddy

Todd and Little Peanut reading one of her favorite books

I am happy to say that this strategy has worked very well for us. We each take turns speaking, reading, singing and playing in our respective languages to Little Peanut. We have also extended OPOL into our families so it is not just One Parent, One Language but One Family, One Language. Despite the fact that we currently live far away from our family, video chats have been incredibly useful to stay connected to loved ones while supporting each of the languages.

Little Peanut’s first ten words were a pretty balanced mix of both Spanish and English. While we lived in Washington DC, Little Peanut attended an English speaking day care and so we worked hard at home to boost support for Spanish since we knew we had to make up for it to ensure that she had the right level of exposure.

Now that we have moved to Germany, the language dynamic has changed quite a bit. For the majority of our stay in Deutschland, Little Peanut has stayed at home with me and so her Spanish has really taken off. Most of her communication is done in Spanish even with Daddy whenever she only knows the word in Spanish. For example, if she wants Daddy to put her shoes on she’ll ask him in Spanish. But whenever she knows the word in both languages she uses the English version for Daddy and the Spanish version for me. Mama has “Pelo” and Daddy has “Hair.”

We just enrolled Little Peanut in a part-time day care in German officially introducing a third language. Only time will tell how the third language will develop and the challenge we will face to keep up with it after our stay in Germany.

German Classroom

Little Peanut at her German Day Care

When it comes to deciding what strategy works best for YOU, make sure it’s something that will be manageable for your family. Being a bilingual parent is always hard work, however, it is still important to find a balance so that you are able to keep up with the approach. Once you settle on the strategy, I recommend making it your own. In our family “high five” will always be in English, it just makes more sense! Just like “Bendicion,” a cultural greeting we say specifically to our elder family members, will be in Spanish.

If you are having a hard time deciding what strategy may work best for you, click here & get a copy of the Language Decision Tree I have put together outlining some potential examples and outcomes for which strategy to use. It may be a helpful guide when selecting from the five strategies above. Decision Tree Image    Click here & get a copy of the Language Decision Tree!

Comments 3

  1. What an excellent strategy and will be easy enough to implement. In our little valley who were all native speakers of Maori up until the late eighties there has been a gradual decline of maori spoken in the homes. Families left to make a better living in the early forties and now the descendants have returned home dissatisfied with city living and all it’s comlexities. These families are part of us but they return with one language, English and slowly our valley is inundated with english speaking families. Our local school is an immersion Maori school and even there some values and principles are being compromised. Thus, we are having to sit and come up with a strategy to make Maori an important part in our homes. After reading your article I’m inspired. Ka nui te mihi. Grateful thanks to you and Peanut.

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I am so thrilled that you are inspired to keep working at preserving and supporting speakers of Maori! My husband Todd and I have been to New Zealand and thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Maori! Hope you find more inspiration throughout the site!

  2. Pingback: Un niño; dos idiomas – Un México bilingüe

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