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Maria Babin

Jan 052017
 

How to implement a combined OPOL + Time and Place family language strategy?

Question

Hello,

I have a question regarding raising a trilingual child. I was raised bilingual by my German father and English mother. I grew up in Germany but have spent a substantial amount of time living in the UK also. My husband is French and we live in France with our 17-month-old daughter.

I am currently speaking English and my husband speaks French to her. Our family language is English; however, we do switch quite a bit at times. I haven’t really introduced German to her yet apart from reading books, singing songs and speaking to family and friends in German when she is around. I would however like to change that and am wondering which is the best approach.

I am worried that I am too late already and it will only confuse her if I now start to speak German to her. The initial reason for me to speak English to her was that my husband doesn’t speak German and we wanted him to be able to understand her first words.

I read in one of your blog post about the consultant who speaks one language for two weeks and then switches to the other for the next two. I quite like this approach and am thinking of giving it a try. Can you give me any tips on how to start this with my daughter in order to avoid her feeling confused and overwhelmed?

Many thanks in advance for your help!

Kind regards,
Harriet

Answer

Hello Harriet,

Thank you for your question. It sounds like you have had a great beginning to your multilingual journey. If I understand correctly, you would like advice about how to implement a two-week language period that would allow you to transmit two separate languages to your child?

First of all, I would like to reassure you that it is not too late, especially if you have already been reading and singing to your daughter. She has also no doubt acquired some German passively when you have spoken German to family and friends. In short, she has already been exposed to German and is still at a tender age where she can quite easily acquire a third language without becoming confused or overwhelmed.

To answer your question, I started using the two-week system to transmit two mother languages to my oldest children when they were 4 and 2 years old. (My children are now 15, 13, 10 and 4 and we are still using the same system.) At the time we began using this family language strategy, we explained to our children in simple words why we wanted them to learn each of their three languages and how we would work as a family to achieve this goal. They were quite excited to try something new! I think you can do the same with your daughter even though she is only 17 months old. Children can understand so much more than we sometimes give them credit for! And for me, this small act was a key ingredient to our success. Involving the children in planning how we would achieve our multilingual goals, made them actors in the process. They consequently felt more implicated in the goal and had a greater desire to participate on a daily basis.

Just for your information, we initially tried an every-other-day system, and found that daily language switching was too mentally strenuous. I had read about a family switching once a month, which we felt would be too long of a time period and so we finally decided on trying to switch languages every two weeks, which has been working quite well for the past 11 years.

We personally use weekends for switching languages because we are usually a bit more relaxed than during the busy work/school week, and also have more time to spend together. Being together means there are more opportunities for language interaction, a key element in actively acquiring a language.

Switching from one language to the other usually takes our family two full days. Friday night I often announce to the kids that we will be switching languages the following morning in order to get everyone mentally prepared. We begin the switch on Saturday morning and then confuse languages on Saturday and Sunday, remind each other often what language period it is when we speak the “wrong” language and by Monday we have more or less made the complete language switch.

There are somethings that you can do to make the language transition easier… Special books in the target language, songs, a special meal from the target language country, etc.

Also, to help us take full advantage of the language period, I try to plan as many interactive activities as possible: cooking and baking, nature walks, board games, books and songs so that we can get as much practice as we can in a variety of different contexts. This helps to increase vocabulary and build oral expression.

Using this system does require a bit of discipline, but it is a wonderful way for one parent to transmit two languages to his or her child(ren). What’s important is for both parents (and the children as much as possible) to discuss the family language plan and to decide together the best way to proceed. When everyone has been involved in the decision-making process and shares the same multilingual goals, the chances for success dramatically increase.

If I could add one more bit of advice to this already long answer… Make it fun! Play and learn as you go. When children learn as they play, their motivation to progress is so much greater. So make language learning natural, simple and fun!

Please let me know if I can clarify anything for you or if you need any additional advice.

Best of luck to you!
Maria

P.S. Here are two articles from my blog that you can also refer to:
Raising multilingual children using an adaptation of OPOL
Why we stick to OPOL

Maria Babin

mariaMaria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life. 

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Aug 182016
 

 

How to choose the languages to speak, read and for media in a trilingual family?

Question

Dear Coaches,

Thank you for such an amazing informative website which has helped me better understand the world of learning more than one language that I grew up in and that I have taught in. During the past fifteen years I have taught young four-five year olds in bilingual schools in Brazil and now I am caring for my two-month newborn and have questions on which are the best strategies to support my plan in guiding him to become trilingual. After reading lots of questions from other families that are similar to my situation I have some ideas but also have some questions.

I was born in the United States and when I was two years old my father was transferred to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I attended the American School and grew up bilingual, learning both English and Portuguese simultaneously.

I married an Uruguayan who grew up trilingual, with Spanish as his majority and Portuguese and English as his minority languages which he speaks very well. When we met, we spoke in Portuguese with each other. I understand Spanish and am able to communicate but with grammatical mistakes. Since our son was born, four months now, my husband speaks Spanish and I answer in Portuguese and vice versa. When we are alone he speaks Portuguese or mixes both. We live in Uruguay and I am a full time mom at least until our son is two years old.

My concern is how to maintain both minority languages, Portuguese and English when I am the one responsible for introducing and maintaining them. Both are family languages for me: English being my biological family but my parents died when I was young and Portuguese being the family language after my dad married my Brazilian stepmother before he died.

My plan to begin with is OPOL, where my husband speaks Spanish and I speak Portuguese. I chose Portuguese first since it is more emotional for me and currently more present in my life. Also because I plan to send him to a bilingual school where he will learn English. I am not worried about the Spanish since that will be his majority language having both a parent/dad’s family speaking and being his country language. My Brazilian family comes to spend summers here in Uruguay and we usually go to Rio for a couple of weeks during the year combined with me speaking would be his exposure to Portuguese.

English will be a curriculum language for our son where I will need to support with at home. I also have family who lives in the US and I would need to make an extra effort to skype as much as possible. our son will attend school here in Punta which makes me more worried about his English aquisition. This is because the structure of schools here in Punta is half day (8-12) in Spanish and half day (1pm-5pm) in English where children only begin English at the age of five. Specialist classes are all in Spanish regardless if they are during English time. I worked in two schools since we moved here and it is not as effective as the schools I worked in Brazil where children (mainly Brazilians) are immersed in English all day starting at the age of three. We are both aligned that he should learn English but I am not sure what my role would look like to make sure he becomes fluent in English without forgetting his Portuguese.

My questions:

1. What language should my husband and I speak to each other? Should the language be the one we each will be speaking to our son since we both understand both Spanish and Portuguese. I have recently read that it would be ideal if Dad also spoke in Portuguese when we are all together since that is a minority language but he believes it is important to be a role model for our son with his native language but would it help if dad spoke Portuguese to me and Spanish to our son?

2. I read in a previous post that it is always alright to read books in different languages. Considering both Portuguese and English will be his minority languages when is it alright to introduce books in English?

3. Can cartoons/songs in English help to begin to familiarize him with the language? What are your thoughts? If so, when and how much exposure?

4. Once he officially starts his exposure to English at school at the age of five, how can I support him with his English and at the same time with Portuguese so he will not forget it?

I appreciate you taking the time with all my questions and look forward to your insights.

Best regards,
Meghan

Answer

Dear Meghan,

Thank you for the detailed email of your background and current situation. And thanks for the specific questions as well! I’ll attempt to answer each one below.

My answers:

1. As far as the common language that you choose between you and your spouse, my advice is to choose the language(s) that feel most comfortable to you and that allow you to communicate with each other at ease. If you have established your relationship in Portuguese and you feel the most comfortable in that language, then you should continue. As long as you spend quality time speaking Portuguese for you and Spanish for your husband with your son, that should provide him with sufficient input to progress in both languages. Will it impact him to hear you speaking a different language to each other? Most likely, yes! If he hears you speaking Portuguese to each other, it will reinforce his listening comprehension, but it will also create an additional emotional attachment to the language, especially if you and your spouse have a strong relationship and communicate well with each other. He may very well develop an affinity for the Portuguese language because of these circumstances. But this will be largely counterbalanced by the fact that you live in Uruguay and that Spanish is the majority language there. On the other hand, if you feel that it would contribute to the cohesiveness and harmony in your family to have a common family language (Portuguese), then that is okay, too. But in my opinion, the language you speak with your significant other should be a language you are both the most comfortable in so that you are at ease to express yourselves as freely as possible.

Just for perspective, I thought I’d share my own family experience. I am Hispanic/American and my husband is French and we live in France with our four trilingual children.I speak English and Spanish with my children (I’ll explain how a bit later) and my husband speaks French with them. But, my husband and I speak English to each other because that’s the language we met and fell in love in! Our children are 15, 12, 10 and 3. Their strongest language is French (the majority language), followed by English (the language my husband and I speak to each other), with their weakest language being Spanish (and I will briefly address this concern a bit later as well). To read more about our trilingual set-up click, please check this article.

2. Yes! I am an advocate of this theory! Books in my home are read in the language they are written in and this as soon as you start reading to your baby, meaning very young! In my opinion, reading the actual language is much more authentic than trying to provide translations. In addition, it helps children make a connection between the words on a page and language. This helps them to make a distinction between languages and also moves them towards emergent literacy, meaning that they learn more quickly to associate the symbols on the page with words. These skills are important bedrock foundations for literacy and bilingualism. To learn more about some of my tips for reading with a young child, click here.

3. Yes, cartoons and songs can be a definite help. I would side more with singing with your child than with cartoons although they can be an excellent resource as well. Keep in mind that children learn best through human interaction, which is why reading or singing with your child is more effective. But cartoons are fun and captivate their attention and can be a wonderful way to reinforce what you are teaching your child. I would say sing, play, read with your child as much as possible, but make it a natural part of your everyday living. The more varied your activities, the more opportunities for language exchanges and the greater the possibilities for learning new vocabulary. In our own home we try to limit the electronics (TV, computer, tablets, phones, etc.), but it is difficult to do in this ever emerging technological world we live in, so it’s hard for me to be quantitative. What I can say is the more you stay busy outdoors, or in the kitchen cooking together, or in the playroom playing, reading and singing, the less time there will be to turn to electronics. And that is a good thing, in my opinion. Use cartoons and other media sparingly as a supplement to your teaching.

Also, you mentioned Skype (which is a very acceptable form of media, especially when it’s to communicate with family and friends in one of the target languages!) and trips to the United States to support your minority language. These are activities that I wholeheartedly applaud and encourage for multilingual families! I think this will be especially important for you as you are concerned about how to maintain the minority languages, as your child grows, knowing that children often adopt the majority language fairly quickly. You can read about our most recent experience here.

4. Now, you mentioned earlier that you wanted to support the English language in your home. I think this will become more clear as time goes by as there are so many different factors that can affect language acquisition. Keep in mind that the best family language plan is one that is evaluated and adjusted as time goes by. But if you want to have a rough plan for the future that allows you to project yourself into your multilingual journey, that is a good thing. If you wanted to support both Portuguese and English, you could adopt a system similar to what I do with my children in our home. As I mentioned earlier, we live in France and my husband speaks French with our children, so the two minority languages are up to me! I speak both minority languages with my children but I use time as a separator. We spend two weeks immersed in English and two weeks immersed in Spanish. We’ve been using this system for 10 years now and it works well for our family, but is not necessarily the right thing for everyone. You can use the link above to get more details about how we organize our system. You can read it and decide if it’s something that could work for you or if you can find some way to adapt the system to your own liking.

As a final word of advice, I believe one of the most important things when raising multilingual children is seeking balance between the languages. Once you have decided what kind of fluency you would like your child to achieve (oral? written? both? basic knowledge? native fluency? etc. and in which languages?), then you will need to regularly assess your progress and make adjustments to allow more or less input in the individual languages in order to achieve the desired fluency. And don’t forget that love and enthusiasm are important ingredients that will allow all your efforts to go a long, long way!

Best of luck to you. And please don’t hesitate to write again if I can clarify any points for you.

Sincerely,
Maria

 

Maria Babin

mariaMaria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.  Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Apr 142016
 

qa-bilingual-baby-two-or-three-languages-from-the-start

Question

Hello Family Language Coaches!

My husband and I are about to have a baby. We live in Italy. I am native in Serbian, fluent in English and lower intermediate in Italian. He is native Italian, fluent in English, beginner Serbian. We primarily communicate in English and live far from grandparents and relatives (who would, therefore, be with the child only a certain amount of time per year).

It is quite important for us that the child grows up able to speak primarily both Italian and Serbian, and we are happy to leave English for later. What would be the best strategy for this, how should we communicate with our child and among ourselves (especially considering that neither of us speak the other’s native language well enough yet)? Would you suggest a different goal (attempting trilingualism straight away), and if so, how?

Thanks!
Marina

Answer

Thank you for your question! Well, first things first, you need to consider the majority language which, since you are living in Italy, will be Italian. If you are planning on staying there throughout your child’s formative years, and especially if your child will attend school in Italian, you should take into consideration that your child will most likely learn Italian with little to no effort on your part. You should also consider how much time you can spend with your child and therefore how much language input you will be able to provide.

A few things to think about: Will you and your and spouse both work outside of the home? Long hours? Weekends? Who will be your child’s primary caregiver? The answers to these questions will help you to estimate the type of language input that your child will potentially have access to and in what language?

However, since Italian and Serbian are a priority for your family and since Italian will be easily learned, I would recommend that you focus your attention on Serbian, the minority language, especially since you will spend limited time with Serbian family and relatives. In that respect, it would be wise for you to speak exclusively in Serbian to your child, or to find a situation where he can have direct interaction in Serbian.

Find as many ways as you can to increase the opportunities for rich language input in Serbian and to motivate your child to speak the minority language. In addition, since his contact with other Serbian speakers will be limited, it would be wise to consider Skype calls with Serbian speaking family members or finding other young Serbian speaking families in the area where you live, for play dates and social gatherings. It may be a bit of a challenge, but worth the effort!

Since we have already established that Italian should come quite easily to your child, the language that your spouse speaks depends entirely on his personal preference. Will he feel more comfortable speaking to your child in his native tongue? Or does he feel comfortable enough in English to establish a relationship with your child in English? If he does, it would be an excellent opportunity to introduce a third language early on, especially as he will most likely learn it passively through observing his parents’ conversations with each other.

Another option your spouse might want to consider is spending half of his time in Italian and half of his time in English with your son. We have a similar plan in our home and this is the way we organise our time between languages.

I hope I have answered your questions and that you feel better prepared to start on your multilingual journey with your soon to be born trilingual child! Congratulations!

Please don’t hesitate to write again if you require further guidance.

Sincerely,
Maria


 

Maria Babin

mariaMaria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life. 
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Feb 112016
 

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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Oct 222015
 

Question

Hi coaches,

I read a lot of your Q&A’s and hope you have some comments for my family’s current situation:

I am a native Danish speaker (speak English fluently after living in the UK for 10 years, but currently living in Denmark). My partner is a native English-speaker (he can get by in Danish after having lived in Denmark for five years). Our 3-year-old was born in Denmark and she speaks almost exclusively Danish, but can understand everything her dad says to her in English. He talks mainly English to her, but sometimes a bit of Danish (should he not be doing this?) When he talks to her in English, she responds in Danish.

My question is whether she is getting too ‘old’ to become bilingual and what we have to do to encourage that she develops her ‘verbal’ English (as opposed to her ‘listening’ English)? We read lots of English books, and my partner and I only ever speak English to each other, but of course, she is surrounded by majority-language from myself, nursery, Danish family etc. She seems reluctant to speak English and have on a few occasions said “I can’t speak English” although she is aware that she understands it.

Due to the fact that she hasn’t developed the confidence to speak it, she is also not able to communicate that well with the English side of the family. Is this something that happens a lot? Any ideas and recommendations most welcome as to how we can encourage her to speak English? Any tips on how we perhaps should do things differently with our 5-month-old baby in order to encourage that he develops the ‘verbal’ English more naturally?

I would also like to add that our daughter (who in general is quite shy), becomes extra shy if we try to get her to say anything in English – particular in front on her dad (the English native speaker). We can’t really figure out why this is, as he under no circumstances has been “pushy” about her learning English, and he never corrects her. She has also started to say that she doesn’t want English books at bedtime, but when I ask her why, she can’t really give a reason. The only reason I can think of is that at bedtime she is tired and it might be a bit harder listening to English rather than Danish, when she is surrounded by Danish most of the day.

The other day I took a really easy English book, and read out short sentences and tried to make a game out of it, by having her repeat the sentences (which she did reluctantly, was shy about it, but thought it was fun). When her dad tried to do the same with her (him being the native English speaker), she did something else and rather interesting – she translated the English sentences back to him but in DANISH! This I found very peculiar, as it clearly shows that she fully understands English, but chooses not to speak it (particular in front of Daddy). Is it a case of introducing the verbal English through games (suggestions most welcome)? Or is there another way we can get her to practise her verbal English?

Thanks,
Marie

Answer

Hello Marie,

Thank you for your question. It is one that I can personally relate to as English is one of our minority languages and one that I work hard to maintain. I also have a soon-to-be 3-year-old who speaks to me almost exclusively in the community language (French). But I also have three older children (14, 12 & 9 years old) who speak their community and minority languages fluently today! So I can reassure you that even when children do not use the minority language when very young, that does not mean there is not a lot of learning going on and that they can’t still grow up to be fluent speakers! A little patience is needed along with a few tips that I have found to be helpful.

Increase input. It sounds like you are already doing a great job, but it is worth repeating. The best way to help our children learn to speak a language is to increase the input in that language. The wider the range of activities that you participate in as a family, the greater the opportunities to learn and practice new vocabulary. Nature walks, cooking together, family meals, museums, read lots of books together and the list could go on and on! This list is for summer, but it can give you some additional ideas: 101 ideas for language immersion outdoors. The more interpersonal interaction is involved, the more effective the language input. But movies, music, and language apps can be a wonderful support.

Create a need to use English. If you have English-speaking friends, make plans to spend time together. If there are young English-speaking children, even better! See if you can find an Anglophone playgroup in your area and participate as often as you can.

Rephrase, repeat. I like to alternate between methods of “correction” when my children speak to me in the “wrong” language. Sometimes I ask for clarification? “Oh, do you mean a shoe?” (if they used a “wrong” vocabulary word). If it was the entire phrase, I sometimes rephrase it in the “correct” language. Occasionally, I will ask the child to repeat either the word or phrase. A word of caution, I try to use these methods with regularity but parsimoniously! Avoid at all costs making this an unpleasant experience for the child. In my opinion, corrections (even when used sparingly) help the child to understand what is expected of them. If we let all the “mistakes” slide, the child risks not understanding that he is not doing what is expected.

Always respond to the child in the target language. (This one seems to go without saying, but for what it’s worth, here it is!) That said, if your companion occasionally speaks to your child in Danish, it’s not the end of the world. It’s better to remain in English (if that is your target minority language) but occasional slip-ups are part of a multilingual lifestyle!

Respect the child’s rhythm. I also have two very shy children and can understand this problem. It can be a challenge for a shy child to express himself in a first language, let alone a second. However, as the child learns and grows and gains in confidence, especially at the heart of your family, the possibility to express himself in the target language will grow. Then you will be amazed at how much your child does already know (thanks to all your great language input!). However, my child who is now almost three is not shy at all and still rarely speaks to me in English. I can see that he clearly understands (he also translates just like your daughter!), but I also see that his majority language is in such a phase of explosion, that he simply does not have time to focus on the English expression for now. This brings me to my final point.

Observe and assess. Even if your daughter does not express herself in English right now, there are plenty of ways for you to know how the language learning is going. The storytime game you described is a perfect example. Use your target language English to ask her to do simple tasks (pick up the ball, put this is in the basket, etc.) and then tasks of increasing complexity (Can you go find me a pair of socks? Can you bring me a red pair of socks? etc.). This will allow you to see what level her comprehension is at and where you might need a little extra work. It will also help her gain confidence in her knowledge of the language.

Above all, have fun! Experience joy along the multilingual journey! This will make a world of difference for both of your children and the parents!

Best of luck to you and your family!

Kind regards,
Maria

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Sep 102015
 

Question

Hello,

I would like to ask a coach a question. I am Argentinean, my first language is Spanish, English and French. I am now living in Montreal and my husband is French Canadian. He speaks French most of the time at home. He has a daughter who stays with us 50% of the time and we have a baby son together.

Usually, we wanted to each speak to our kids in our language. So French and Spanish. My catch is that I have been away from Argentina for a long time. My husband does not speak Spanish so when I am tired, English is my go-to language. All of my friends here are anglophones and I generally go through life around the English environment here in Montreal. I find it difficult to think that my kids will not speak English when that is the language I choose for my every day life, but at the same time, I know that Spanish is the language of my son’s extended family in Argentina and it probably will be a language he won’t be surrounded with here in Canada.

In a perfect world, I would like to be able to speak Spanish when we are alone (or surrounded by Spanish speakers) and English when we are out or at home so my husband understands. I find that it might be too confusing and I don’t know how to tackle this.

To add a complication, I can only speak French to my step-daughter or my family-in-law so my baby will know that I speak the majority language. It is then difficult to say speak to mommy in x language when your sister is allowed to speak to me in French. We are trying to adjust my husband’s reflex so he speaks English to me instead of French but it’s a difficult habit (and he is not good with languages).

So now it’s a mess. I speak Spanish, English or sometimes French to the baby, French to my stepdaughter, English to my husband. Sometimes we mix it all together and we all have conversations in our languages (and mixing it). My baby is 1 year old, and I feel i need guidance on this.

Thanks,
Fernanda

Answer

Hello Fernanda,

Thanks for writing! Wow, that does sound like a challenging situation, but not one that we can’t find a solution for!

My first advice to you would be to encourage you to choose a family language. I believe that French would be the most logical choice as your husband and stepdaughter are French Canadian, especially during the weeks when your stepdaughter is staying with you. This will help to create harmonious family relationships. It is okay and even good to speak to your baby in French during this time. This will help introduce clarity and reduce possible tensions as you will speak to both siblings and their father in the same language when you are all together.

When your stepdaughter is not staying with you or when you are with other English speakers, switch your family language to English. Your husband will understand you, and your baby will get sufficient language input in English. In short, you will spend 50% in French and 50% in English. I use a similar system with my own family that you can read about here.

Spanish is the tricky part, but there is a solution for that as well! Choose some special one-on-one moments with your baby such as bath time, story time, etc. Speak to your son only in Spanish during these times no matter what the family language is at the time. Keep in mind that as he will have lesser amounts of input in Spanish, he will most likely not achieve the same level of proficiency as he will in French or English, but that is okay.

The important thing is to have him hear your voice speaking Spanish and to create an emotional bond with him in that language. As he grows older, you can increase his exposure to native Spanish through Skype calls to family in Argentina, playgroups with other native speakers in Montréal, or some after-school classes. If it’s possible, plan a trip to Argentina where he will be immersed in the language and culture while visiting family.

I hope you will find this perspective helpful and that you will soon be more at ease in your multilingual goals!
Best of luck to you!

Sincerely,
Maria

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Aug 062015
 

Question

Hello,

I have been reading through your website and I would like to ask what you recommend for our situation. We are a Slovak couple (fluent in English, but not native speakers) living and expecting to live in Greece for a few more years, but then return home to Slovakia or maybe move to a different country for a few more years before moving finally home. Therefore, we want to raise our soon-to-be-borne-baby as bilingual in Slovak and English. I am not afraid about the Slovak language, that is the only language normally spoken at our home. We don’t really want the child to pick up Greek, since it will probably not need it any more by the time it starts to speak :-)

For English I plan to get an English-speaking baby-sitter for a few hours a few times a week (thinking about three times a week), and later on, try to find some English speaking playgrounds, nurseries, friends etc. Do you think it is enough exposure or should I add more English exposure by speaking English myself to the baby? I of course have to speak English when communicating with the rest of the world and I think if I am in an English speaking company, I will also speak English to the baby, I hope this is ok and not going to confuse the baby too much, do you see a problem with that?

The situation is quite simple compared to many of the 4+ languages described by others, but since we cannot really stick to the OPOL rule, I am not sure what I can do to help the baby to pick up English and get a proper English accent. Or should I not worry about the English at the moment and focus on it more when the baby is bigger? But if he does not learn English, he cannot communicate to anyone else the second he leaves the house…

Many thanks for your opinion!
Jackie

Answer

Hello Jackie,

Thanks for your question. Here are a few thoughts that should guide you in establishing your family language plan.

If I understand correctly you would like your child to become fluent in Slovak and English, but you are seeking advice about the best way to transmit the minority language English.

One thing to keep in mind is that children generally adopt the majority language (the community language wherever you are living) more than the minority language(s) spoken in the home. If you plan on moving back to Slovakia, then this will indeed allow your child to become fluent in Slovak with little to no effort on your part. However, even though you speak exclusively Slovak in your home, if you stay in Greece for a few years (or another country), it is very likely that your child will begin to pick up the majority language there (Greek, etc.). Although this is difficult to avoid, it can be counterbalanced by increasing the amount of language input in the home through direct social interaction by the parents and others who speak Slovak or the target language.

As far as English is concerned, your ideas are very good and you may need to combine them in order to ensure your child receives sufficient language input. Here are a few questions/thoughts to examine to help optimize your child’s language acquisition:

1. Will the babysitter be a native English speaker? Will she feel comfortable and willing to speak exclusively in English? Will she be willing to read storybooks and teach nursery rhymes in English?

2. An English speaking “tribe” is essential when you are teaching a minority language that you are not a native speaker of. Play groups, parent support groups, friends, etc. and especially those who can model native English speech for your child. Read this post on Bilingual Avenue: Advice from bloggers around the world about building a language tribe.

3. Yes, you can indeed also speak English to your child, especially if you feel it is important in the presence of other English speakers. This will not confuse your child, but give him the additional input and emotional attachment to his parent and the English language. You could even set up a language corner in your home, where you could share English speaking moments throughout the day.

Finally, in response to your concerns about helping your child to acquire correct English, it will be important to ensure that he has people that will model native or near-native fluency. He will learn vocabulary, phrases, grammar, syntax from all people who model the English language for him, but to ensure that he learns it the right way, seek to spend quality time with people who speak it correctly and with native pronunciation.

I hope I have addressed all your concerns and that you feel more prepared to raise a bilingual child. Congratulations on your happy upcoming event! And please, write again to let us know how things work out for you or if you have additional questions.

Kind regards,
Maria

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Jul 162015
 

Question

Dear Family Language Coaches,

My first son will soon be born and my husband and I have to make the difficult decision which languages to speak with him. I am German and we are living in Germany. So one of his languages will definitely be German. My husband’s native language is Hebrew, but since the last 7 years he has lived in England and Germany and 98% of his daily communication happens in English. The two of us speak English with each other, too. I understand basic Hebrew, he understands German alright but speaks it only broken. The child’s grandparents, aunts cousins etc. from my husbands side all live in Israel. They would prefer to speak to the child in Hebrew, but are capable of English communication, too.

The question is if and how we should balance the English and Hebrew exposure to our son. The most ‘natural’ approach for me would be, that each of us speaks his/her native language with the child and we continue to speak English with each other, since we have no other shared language, and hope that the child will not be confused by the third language in the house and catch some English, too.

Alternatively my husband thinks about giving up Hebrew and raising our child English-German, as this might be easier for everyone involved. We have no Hebrew-speaking network around us and he fears, that it would feel awkward to speak a language as “weird” as Hebrew outside the home to his child. Aside from his family (always a travel away), he would be the only Hebrew influence on the child. He speaks English fluently and on a high level (but in the end he will never speak like a native speaker would…)

Do you have any advice for us? I want to give my son the chance to grow up bilingual or even trilingual. But I am afraid, that the German influence (mother and outside world), will be too dominant if in addition the father will not push his native language consequently.

Thank you for your help!
Best wishes,
Nele




Answer

Hello Nele,

Thank you for writing to our team of family language coaches and congratulations on your upcoming happy event!

Deciding on which your family languages will be is an important choice to consider carefully. It’s a choice that should take into consideration many different factors in your life as I see that you have carefully done. Whatever you decide, everyone involved (namely, you and your spouse for the time being as your child will be quite unable to reason and voice his opinion for at least a few years) should feel comfortable with the decision.

As German will clearly be your child’s majority language, you must now decide which will be his minority language(s). Just something to consider, will you always live in Germany?

Secondly, what are your multilingual motivations and goals? Do you want to raise a multilingual child more for the cognitive benefits or more to create a link with the child’s family and heritage? To clearly understand your motivations and be united as a couple on this point, will help you to make your choice. If you lean more towards the cognitive benefits he will gain, then English and Hebrew would offer similar opportunities (with the exception that your spouse is at a disadvantage in modelling English, as he is not a native speaker). If you lean more towards creating a link with the child’s family and heritage, then Hebrew would not only offer cognitive benefits by a native speaker, but would also allow your child to have a clear connection to his family in Israel, his ancestors and the rich culture that resides in that part of the world. This is a very important point considering a child’s background is essential for him to construct a positive self-identity. Something to think about, do you plan to travel often to Israel or keep in touch with family through telephone and video calls?

If your spouse is concerned about your child feeling awkward speaking Hebrew in Germany, remember that our children often adopt the attitude that we transmit to them. Your spouse can create a positive atmosphere speaking Hebrew in the home and if he doesn’t want Hebrew to set your child apart in his majority language environment, he can speak to him in German or English when in public.

If your spouse decides to teach your child Hebrew, the fact that you speak English to each other should not pose any problems cognitively. Your child will even most likely pick up this language passively.

Finally, I offer an option that I have adopted for my own children as I have two heritage languages that I could not choose between! I decided to teach them both heritage languages (English and Spanish) in addition to their majority language (French) by using a two-week rotation system. You can read more about it in this post.

I hope I have answered all your questions and set at ease some of your doubts. Please do write again to let us know what you decide.

Sincerely,
Maria Babin

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Mar 192015
 

Question

My daughter is 2.5 yrs. I have only spoken to her in Spanish her whole life (we live in the US) her mother, a stay-at-home mom, only speaks English. If I press her, she will speak in Spanish, but she always responds in English unless I refuse to listen unless she says it in Spanish.

Also, I would like to teach my kids Portuguese, but my wife thinks speaking to them in Spanish and Portuguese will confuse them because they are similar. I wanted to talk to my daughter in Spanish and my 1 yr old son in Portuguese, but my wife didn’t want that because she wanted them to be able to talk to each other in the same language. Will it help them both learn Portuguese and Spanish if I do one language per kid? or should I just do both Spanish and Portuguese to both… like maybe picking one day a week to speak only Portuguese?

Michael

Answer

Hello Michael,

Thank you for your question. If I understand correctly, you are seeking to resolve two separate issues in your family’s multilingual plan:
1. Your 2 1/2 year old daughter doesn’t respond in the target language (Spanish) and prefers to speak in the community language (English).
2. You would like to teach your 2 1/2 year old daughter and 1-year-old son an additional language: Portuguese.

Let me address the first issue first. It is quite common for children to have a strong preference for the community language. Most children want to be the same as their peers and although your daughter is very young, she seems to have picked up on cues that tell her that English is the community language. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, must have a great deal of influence on your children as she likely spends entire days with them. Does your wife speak Spanish? What is her feeling towards raising your children bilingually (English and Spanish)? If she speaks Spanish, would she be willing to also speak Spanish to your children? In this way, you could achieve teaching the minority language (Spanish) in the home and the children would still learn the community language (English) through very little efforts of your own. It is good to encourage children to speak the target language, but be careful not to be too strict. Children should be free to express themselves in the language they feel most comfortable in. Try reading books in Spanish with both your children, play silly games or sing songs in Spanish to make it fun and you might just be surprised at your children’s increasing desire to express themselves in Spanish. Your son is still very young and might not speak yet, but these are the golden moments to help prepare him for when he will say his first words!

Now about the second issue… I am curious to know why you would like to teach your children Portuguese. Is it one of your heritage languages? (I am assuming that Spanish is one of your heritage languages.) It’s important to examine your own motivation for wanting to transmit another language as well as evaluate your own proficiency in the language. Do you speak Portuguese fluently? As I mentioned earlier, as children grow they pick up cues that tell them what the community language is and it usually becomes their language of choice. It is very likely that your children will speak to each other in English. And I wonder, does your wife speak Portuguese? The answer to this question should also help guide you as to how to proceed. If your wife doesn’t speak Portuguese, how will you make sure that she feels included in conversations with your children? I would personally discourage one language per child as I feel it would create a fragmented structure for communicating within your family, especially if your wife doesn’t speak one or both of these languages. If you wish to introduce Portuguese, I would recommend following your own idea of choosing a time or place to speak Portuguese: a specific day of the week, a certain time of the day (bedtime or bathtime, for example) or in a specific area in the house (a language corner, for example, filled with books and toys in Portuguese). Even though your children might not achieve the same level of proficiency as in English or Spanish, teaching them a third language would be beneficial for them, opening their worlds and their minds to yet another language and culture!

I hope these basic guidelines will help you to establish a family language plan and that you will enjoy your multilingual journey!

Please don’t hestitate to write again.

Sincerely,
Maria Babin

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Jan 152015
 

Question

I love your website! It has helped me so much in learning how to raise our son and daughter in a bilingual home.

My husband is Thai, and I am American, and we live in America. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and conversational in Thai, so I speak Thai at home with my 2-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter. My son has started to speak mainly in Thai. I read mainly to him in English though since my Thai reading skills aren’t very good, and my husband reads to him in Thai.

He has taken a great interest in the English alphabet, which is completely different characters from the Thai alphabet. We are always pointing out letters together, and he has some activities that have the alphabet with an English word that corresponds to it. I’m wondering if I should try to say those words that go with the letters, but thought that would confuse him since I always say Thai usually when we talk about those words?

If you could give me some advice on how to help him, but not confuse him, that would be great!

Thanks!
Sherri

Answer

Hello Sherri,

Thanks for writing! It sounds like you are very committed to raising your children with both of their heritage languages! Just out of curiosity, does your husband also speak only Thai to your children? If that is the case, I am assuming you have opted for the minority language at home (mL@H) method.

I sense you are fairly enthusiastic about being able to speak Thai to your children even though you are American and your mother tongue is English. If this is what you wish to do with your children, I would encourage you to continue. Raising a bilingual family should be a thrilling, happy experience. Your children will feel your enthusiasm and this will be an added benefit. Enthusiasm is contagious!

If you wish to help your son (and later your daughter) with letters, sounds and words in English, this should not pose a problem to your children’s progress in Thai, nor confuse them. To help your children make a clear distinction between the languages, you might want to set aside a special time during the day for this activity: as an early morning activity or during quiet time in the afternoon.

Another idea would be to create a small language corner dedicated specifically to English. You could fill the corner with books in English and whenever you go to your English corner, your children know that you switch languages for a short time. See more about setting up a language corner here: A language corner for teaching a foreign language in the home

I wish you the best of luck in your bilingual endeavors and don’t hesitate to let us know if you have additional questions.

Sincerely,
Maria

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