Question

Hello,

We are Czech-Finnish couple living for 3 years in Finland and we just got our first child. We tried to agree on our family-language-strategy before our son was born, but we couldn´t agree on one. What was sure was, that each one of us wants to speak to son with own mother language: I´m going to speak in Czech and my husband in Finnish. My husband doesn´t speak Czech even though he understands a little bit and he “always wanted to learn it”. When we started to date many years ago, we were speaking in English to each other only. When we moved together in Finland, I learned Finnish so well, that it soon became better than my English was, so we started to use Finnish as our home language.

Now when our son was born, I´d like to prefer speaking to my husband in English rather than Finnish, because it feels like I need more neutral language on the “language battle field”. My husband prefers that we would continue speaking in Finnish at home (but still keeping OPOL strategy in a way speaking to our son). Now even though my Finnish is probably better that my English, I cannot get rid of idea, that speaking Finnish to my husband in front of our son will one day end up making son “understand”, that “mommy understands Finnish” and so there is no reason to continue communicating in Czech language.

I think that problem, as I see it, is that if we continue speaking in Finnish at home, Finnish language will officially become the majority language at home (as well as outside of home). Czech language will clearly become the minority language. At this moment my husband speaks to our son in Finnish, and I speak to our son in Czech. At the moment the language between me and my husband is a mixture between Finnish and English. Since we are new now in bilingual/multilingual raising-up-thing, could I kindly ask for advice what language strategy could be working best in our case? To use English or perhaps Finnish as our home language? Or the most difficult – but at the end maybe the most paying off – should we all (mommy, daddy, boy) concentrate on using Czech as home language in a meaning that daddy would try to learn Czech as well?

Thank you!
Regards, Ludmila




Answer

Dear Ludmila,

Thank you for your question – I can see from your question that you have given this a lot of thought! You are right when you say that one day your son will realise that you can speak Finnish. However, this does not mean that he would automatically give up on Czech. The most important thing is that you are very consistent in using Czech with him, even when he might at some point say something to you in Finnish. It is also helpful if you can visit your relatives (who do not speak Finnish) so that he experiences situations where the only option for him is to speak Czech. I would also recommend to set up a regular schedule of Skype calls with your family so your son gets used to these taking place at least once a week.

Research has shown that statistically the most effective family language strategy is minority language at home (mL@H). So yes, if you were to switch to all of you speaking Czech at home, your son would no doubt become fluent in both languages. However, statistics is one thing and reality is another. From what you write, I take that this is not an option that your husband is prepared to go for. When planning who will speak what to a bilingual(-to-be) child it is important to be realistic. Even the best intentions and well-made plans are worth nothing if they cannot be put into practice in real life. Continuing with the one parent, one language (OPOL) approach when speaking with your son seems to be the viable option for you.

Then we have the question which language you and your husband should speak together. It is vital that you come to an agreement about the choice of language. As per above, I do not think Czech as a common language 100% of the time would work for you as a couple. However, since your husband “always has wanted to learn it” you could suggest that you use Czech as a home language for example one day a week. Preferably, choose a day when you are not too busy. Not only would this increase the Czech exposure for your son, but your husband would also learn a bit more Czech and, most importantly, be a positive bilingual role model to your son.

Remains the question what you and your husband should speak during the rest of the days, Finnish or English. I can understand your concern that if you choose Finnish then Czech will lose out. As I mentioned at the start, this does not have to be the case. Many parents (myself included) have managed to keep the minority language going even after the child learns that mum/dad also speaks the other language.

I am not averse to reintroducing English as your common language, but again, you need to agree on this. Alternatively, since both of you understand Finnish and English, you could go for the option where your husband speaks Finnish and you English. It may sound odd, and it would take a bit of time to get used to, but it is all about communication in the end. I have taken part in many conversations where the participants have been speaking different languages.

As you may notice, I am not going to give you a definite answer on the choice of common language – consider the different solutions, try them out, then select the one that you agree on and which works for you as a family.

Hope this helps – please do ask any further questions you may have and do let us know how it goes!

All the best,

Rita

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