Question

Hello,

I wonder about minority language (mL) between parents combined with one parent, one language (OPOL), and the benefits of having spoken/understood several languages during childhood without making it to even receptive bilingualism.

We are young parents-to-be from French- and Italian-speaking backgrounds, in a French-speaking context. We both learned the other’s language in our twenties but for now speak French together, the majority language (ML). We agree that my partner (mL speaker) should speak his own language to our child; we’ll go to Italy once or twice a year and make a game of making our child interact with everyone, will certainly have Italian reading material and will most probably see other French-Italian bilingual friends at home. But at the same time, our position is: if we can’t make Italian a habit, we might decide not to push it. Home is not a place for pressure.

My questions are:

Would it be beneficial to all of us if we were to use mL between parents (initiating before birth) and OPOL with the child?

In consequence, should I work on improving my Italian so that we can switch our home-language from French (ML) to Italian (mL)? This would mean greater mL exposition for our child (and prevent a loss of fluency on my partner’s side), but we won’t stick to it until I get better and speaking Italian doesn’t equate with a loss of connection between us (we tried already). I guess that if we were to speak Italian together, the temptation for my partner to speak French (ML in which he’s non-native, but in which we have a history) to our child will be reduced, but I am reluctant to change our habits. So: how impactful is the language spoken by the parents together?

Is it a better idea to say that when Dad is at home, we all speak Italian (more of a time and place approach), or to keep it natural and OPOL?

Secondly, since we don’t want to force things, I want to consider the option that our child doesn’t become a bilingual and ends up being a receptive bilingual instead, or just plainly forgets mL by adolescence/adulthood. We’ve read all sorts of fantastic things about the benefits of bilingualism in the brain’s development, how bilinguals are better at learning language, better problem-solvers and better at focusing /ignoring “noise”. Does that still count if you are bilingual as a toddler or child but don’t pass the 9-year-old threshold?

In my opinion, if all that remains are fond memories from childhood, I’m glad all the same. Learning Italian is anyway easy for any French-speaker. But if the experience helps our child to be a better language-learner (in any language) and gives her or him better abilities, then I might be more motivated.

Thanks for your answers and support.

Thank you,
Celine

Answer

Hello Celine,

I find your question fascinating, especially as I can relate on a very personal level. I also appreciate your grounded perspective concerning the environment you would like to create in your home regardless of your multilingual goals. On this respect, I agree with you 100%. A harmonious family life is the most important component in raising children who will then become well-adjusted, contributing members of society. Bilingualism, whether receptive or active, would be a plus.

I think it is very important for you and your partner to evaluate your goals as well as your motivations for raising a multilingual child and I find it especially refreshing to hear you consider the option of not raising your child bilingual at all. It shows that you truly have his best interest at heart, rather than the pursuit of your own ambitions. I would just like to add that raising multilingual children is truly a journey (just like parenthood) and that it’s wise to evaluate and adapt at regular intervals throughout. Your child and his or her personality will no doubt influence the strategy you adopt and many things will become more clear once he or she is with you.

That said, planning ahead is smart, so here are the answers to your questions about which family language strategy to use.

With respect to what language you should use between parents, I would say to choose the language that feels most natural to you. My husband and I also went through these same type of ponderings and after different very unnatural attempts and what felt like “playing house” to us, we decided to retain our language of love (the language we spoke to each other since we met and fell in love – English) and this regardless of the impact we felt it might have on our children. We concluded that our relationship was the foundation for our family and we should therefore choose the language that would allow us to feel at ease communicating with each other.

The impact that your shared language as a couple will have on your child(ren) depends on a myriad of other factors. In our case, our shared language is also one of my children’s minority languages and it has therefore reinforced their knowledge of, expression of and affinity for English. So that is something you should take into consideration. Will your shared language be your child’s minority or majority language or another altogether? But other things to consider are the respectability of the language in the area where you live, the availability of media (especially films) in the target language and also the amount of contact that you have with speakers of that language. Another aspect to consider is how much quality time you will spend together as a family. Will both parents work? In or out of the home? Long hours? Will you have long or frequent vacation periods? Consider the practical aspect of how much time you will spend interacting all together.

To answer your final question, my unequivocal answer would be yes! Early childhood bilingualism is extremely beneficial even if the child does not progress beyond a certain age. However, to more fully appease your inquiry, I would like to direct you to an article from Bilingual Kids Rock where the following four benefits are addressed: emotional benefits, practical benefits, the educational advantage, and the cultural advantage. The title of the article is “Why Raise a Bilingual Child: 4 Powerful Benefits.” It is well-written, accessible and I think you’ll relate well to the author’s experience and point of view.

One last thing, if you can make childhood magical in the majority and minority language, creating happy memories along the way, your child will naturally love both languages and won’t want to let go of either one. This has been my experience, a very rich and rewarding bilingual journey that we’ve been on these past 15 years with our four trilingual children. To learn more about how we have adapted OPOL to fit our family’s needs, read here: “Why we Stick to OPOL”.

If you have any further questions or require clarification on any of the points above, please don’t hesitate to write again. I wish you the very best as you embark on parenthood and hope that you will be able to join us on the bilingual journey as well.

Kind regards,
Maria

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