Sep 242014

Bilingual children - the Whether or not parents of bilingual children need to be consistent with their language use all the time is one of the topics that divide the opinions of mothers and fathers bringing up their children in a multilingual family. My choice of wording in the title probably makes my stand clear: yes, I do think that consistency is vital when raising a bilingual child. However, I want to hasten to add, this does not mean that children of parents who are not consistent will automatically not learn both (or all) family languages.

My opinion about the importance of consistency is based on the findings that children from families where parents are consistent in their language use are more likely to become active speakers of both (or all) the languages of the family. Note the phrase ‘are more likely to’ – it does not say ‘are the only ones who’. To increase the chances of succeeding in raising a bilingual child, I usually recommend going down the consistent language use route whenever possible.

Another reason I am an advocate for consistency is that it creates a habit. When speaking a certain language becomes a routine in a family, the language has more staying power than if it is used in a more random manner. If you manage to stick to your language with your kids, this is what they will expect you to speak to them all the time and they will answer in the same language. You will also find that elder siblings may become even greater proponents of the language consistency by correcting their younger brother or sister if they happen to speak the “wrong” one. By the way, if you would like to stay consistent more often, one way of doing it is to increase the time when you read to your children.

So yes, be as consistent as you can, but also don’t let the striving for consistency become something so rigid that it takes away the joy from speaking your language or, even worse, creates a communication barrier. Language is all about making connections and creating bonds through communication, if the opposite happens, then it is time to review how the languages are used in the family. With this, I am not saying at all that you should not try to steer your child to use the right language, for example by repeating in your language what your child just said to you in the “other” language, and thus creating a natural bridge back to the preferred one. It is about finding the right balance between the two extremes.

Every family and every parent is different – an approach which is perfect for one maybe out of the question for another. It makes me sad when I notice, for example in various forums, parents of bilingual children condemning others’ ways of raising their children by saying that the parent must stay consistent, otherwise the child will never learn the language. This is simply not true. The child may well get the consistent exposure from somewhere else, be it a grandparent, another relative, a friend, a community or activity group. As long as children are regularly and often enough in an environment where there is a real need to use a language in interaction with others, they will learn to both understand and speak it.

Also, parents have different expectations on the level of fluency they want for their children. One family may want their kids to be fluent in all the family languages and therefore decide to stay strictly consistent all the time. In another family a parent may not feel comfortable in insisting on their children using a certain language, or the parents are happy with lesser language skills. Whatever a family’s choice is, we should respect everyone’s decision – after all, some language knowledge is better than none at all!

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback 2017

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 Posted by at 2:33 pm

  9 Responses to “Bilingual children: the case for consistency”

  1. Thanks for the article! In fact, coincidentally I came across an article earlier today about this very subject on the linguistlist.org website (http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/biling2.cfm – 4th question from the bottom of the page).

    They seem to think that even going as far as mixing languages in one sentence will not harm a child’s chances of becoming bilingual. I do sometimes do that myself, even though I try not to too much.

    It is interesting to read different people’s perspective on this.

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  3. […] change with them if need be – by increasing the amount of language exposure, staying even more consistent or asking for others’ […]

  4. […] consistent in your language use – even if, and especially when, your child shows a tendency to use the […]

  5. […] from families where the minority language has lost its importance. To create any habit you need to consistently take certain actions. To make speaking a language a habit, you as a parent need to continue using […]

  6. […] spite of the above findings that mixing languages can lead to great results, I would like add that consistency does play a role for the minority language – the lesser the exposure, the greater the need for […]

  7. […] the odds rise to 74%. If you have read my posts before, you know I have always been a proponent of consistency, especially for the minority language parent – for reasons of exposure and language […]

  8. […] with the modification that you actually have two minority languages in the home. In this scenario, consistency in language use is more important than ever, so make sure your child gets exposed to both Russian […]

  9. […] these principles become so rigid that it takes the fun out of learning and speaking. The call for consistency in certain scenarios may feel contradictory to this, but it really is not. Occasionally switching a […]

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