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Rita Rosenback

Sep 172017
 

How can a small bilingual child learn two additional languages?

 

Question

Dear Coaches,

I would greatly appreciate your advice regarding raising a multilingual son in the following language environment:

I would like my son to speak English, Hungarian, German and Spanish. We live in the US, my husband is American and only speaks English. I am Hungarian and speak Hungarian, English and German at “mother tongue” level, and am conversational in Spanish and French.

My son is two and a half years old. He has been exposed to English and Hungarian from the day he was born. I am a full-time mom and speak mostly Hungarian with him, but when we are outside of the house (at preschool, playdates, grocery store) I speak English with him. Sometimes I speak English with him for a while at home, without noticing it. And when it comes to important parenting moments, I always switch to English.

I am attending several parenting classes, and am learning how to be a parent in English, and therefore it is difficult for me to convey important parenting messages to him in Hungarian. Also, when it’s the three of us at home: husband, son and I, or we are together outside of the house, I always speak English to my son because I don’t want my husband to feel left out.

We have two nannies, one: 2 days a week for 4 hours each (8 hours per week) and is American/English speaking. The other: 4-5 days a week for 5 hours per day (20 hours per week) and is Hungarian, speaks Hungarian with my son exclusively. My parents live in Germany, and speak to my son in Hungarian, about once a week via Skype.

This month he starts preschool, and the program includes Spanish lessons, so he will be exposed to a third language. When he was 20 months old, he had 20 words in English and five in Hungarian. At 28 months, he speaks three-word sentences in English and two-word sentences in Hungarian, and he knows and speaks nearly every word in both languages, so his language skills are roughly equal in both languages. For some words, he seems to have a preference in one language. For example, ‘red’ he always uses the English word, even if we had a whole conversation in Hungarian prior to that. For the word ‘uncle’ he always uses the Hungarian word.

1) Do you agree with our language practices as established or would you recommend some changes?

2) I would like to introduce German when appropriate. Can I do it now or is it better to wait a year or even longer?

3) Since I am the only one who speaks German in the family (my parents and sisters speak it too, but they only visit once or twice a year) – should I switch to German at some point, while we are keeping the Hungarian nanny 20-25 hours per week? Or should I keep speaking Hungarian, and hire a German nanny for 10-15 hours a week?

4) Also, if one of you is available for a conversation via Skype, I would appreciate it and would be delighted to compensate you for your time.

Many thanks and warm wishes!
Dori

Answer

Dear Dori

Thank you for your message and for the detailed description of your family’s language situation. I already had the pleasure of connecting with you though a video call and I am delighted to have learnt to know you and your husband!

Your son is lucky to be growing up in such a language-rich environment and having parents who support him learning several languages. His two first languages, English and Hungarian, are developing well, so you have done a great job at arranging appropriate exposure to them.

I can understand your struggle between speaking Hungarian and English, especially since your husband cannot communicate in Hungarian. Having a Hungarian-speaking nanny has no doubt been crucial to your son picking up the language so well.

With regards to you feeling that you want to avoid that your husband feels left out if you were to speak Hungarian with your son when you are all together – this is something you should discuss with your husband. I know of many couples where the minority language parent avoids speaking his or her language of this very reason – and the majority language parent would wish that their partner spoke more of the minority language so they could pick up some of it, too. The problem is that the parents have never discussed this! As I know your husband has a positive attitude to multilingualism and does already know a little of several languages, he may well be perfectly fine with more Hungarian in the home.

I am emphasising your use of Hungarian with your son, as there will come a point when you won’t need a nanny anymore, because your son will attend school full time. At this point, his Hungarian exposure would drastically decrease. Getting used to speaking mostly Hungarian with your son now, will make it easier for when you will be the main source of Hungarian exposure for him.

I wouldn’t worry about your son mixing languages and preferring to use one language over the other for a specific phrase. This is normal bilingual child behaviour and he will by time learn which word to use in which language.

With regards to your questions:

1) At this moment, your setup is ideal for passing on Hungarian and English to your son.

2) You can introduce a little German through play, songs and rhymes, but at this point I would not yet start speaking German with him. He will already be learning a third language, Spanish, when he goes to school, and you might want to support him with this. We will discuss your priorities in more detail during our call.

3) The fourth language – in your case German – will require some additional effort from you. I understand that Hungarian is higher on the priority order than German, so I would not recommend that you switch to German at this point. If you manage to stick to Hungarian, then hiring a German-speaking nanny would be a natural way of introducing the language. You would then need to think about how to continue the German-exposure once the nanny is no longer needed. We will talk about the details of this during our next calls.

4) Thank you for asking. We have already had our first call and once I receive your completed questionnaire, I can put together a Family Language Plan for you with recommendations and next steps. After that we will have at least one follow-up call and further calls as and when you feel necessary. Looking forward to catching up!

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey, speak to you soon!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Sep 142017
 

How to balance the exposure to two minority languages for a trilingual (-to-be) child?

 

Question

Hello,

I have been reading a lot on your website and have found a lot of interesting stories and insights!

I am Franco-Chinese with French and Chinese as my mother tongues, my partner is British and we live in London. I am pregnant and I am keen to make sure that my children can speak both Chinese and French – I am not too worried for English as we live in London!

One plan I have been thinking about and I was wondering if I could get your advice is: – from 6 months to 3 years, I would put my child in the Mandarin and English bilingual nursery we have in the neighbourhood – from 3 years old, I would like my child to be educated in the French primary school in London (there is no bilingual Chinese English school yet) – myself at home, I would speak to him/her in Mandarin during week days and French during weekends.

I know this is going to be hard work especially for me (my friends tend to all be French or Chinese living in the U.K. And we all speak “mixed” languages with different words from different languages in one sentence, which will confuse the child big time!) but I am adamant on passing on both my mother tongues to my children.

The good thing is that my partner is very supportive of this – he only speaks English but says he wants to learn with the kid!)

Would be grateful for any thought you have on my plan!

Thank you
Xi

Answer

Dear Xi

Thank you so much for your kind feedback and for the question about raising your child to become trilingual in Chinese, French and English.

Passing on two minority languages is a big undertaking and one should not underestimate the time an effort to do so. This said, it can be and has been done. The clear advantages you have are your passionate commitment, your husband’s support and the availability of external resources for achieving your goal.

I like both of your ideas about starting in a Mandarin and English bilingual nursery and attending a French primary school from the age three. This way your little one would get a foundation in Mandarin and English – both of which would also be your home languages. Going to an all-French school, being immersed in the language for a large part each weekday would mean that your child would soon become a fluent French-speaker. I presume there are also further schooling available in French?

I would be in touch with the French school and ask about their expectations for the level of children’s French when they join. It is possible that they are used to taking on small children with no or very little French skills, which would mean that you would not have to worry too much about French prior to the school start. Of course, you can still sing, read rhymes, play games etc in French with your little one – but you wouldn’t need to feel the pressure of having your child reach a certain standard.

The variation of the time and place (T&P) method you mention, where you would speak Mandarin during the weekdays and French during the weekends, is certainly doable, but would require a lot of mental composure from you. Our Family Language Coach Maria Babin is switching between two languages (French and English) with her children, but does so on a fortnightly schedule as she found shorter periods too taxing. However, every person and family is different, so you will not know how it feels until you have tried it.

Don’t worry about the language mixing you and your friends do when talking with each other. This is normal bilingual discussion behaviour and it will not confuse your child. He or she will get enough French-only, Chinese-only and English-only exposure to be able to pick up the individual languages.

Since the external Mandarin exposure would mostly stop when your child moves from nursery to school, you will need to pay attention to the amount of Mandarin he or she will interact in and have the opportunity to speak. To maintain and develop the Mandarin skills for your child, I would recommend that you stick to Mandarin only with your little one, at least at the point where the French school starts. Once your child goes to school and French inevitably soon becomes a strong language, if you speak Mandarin only during the weeks, it could mean very little Mandarin exposure. There would be some interaction in the morning, and some in the evening – but since your husband will also be present, the dominating language in the evening will most likely be English.

If you were to speak French during the weekend (alternating with English, whenever your husband is part of the discussion), the Mandarin speaking time would be reduced to a maximum of one to two hours each weekday. I know your husband wants to learn Chinese and French alongside your child (and I respect and commend him for it!), but it will most likely take him some time before he can lead a conversation in either of the languages.

It is important to have a plan with clearly defined goals, but it is equally vital to have the flexibility to change the plans if the situation does not turn out the way you intended. You may find that you do not like either the nursery or school, or that of some reason you will have to move to another area where you would not have these resources. Once you see how your child’s languages develop, you will also understand which approach works for you and when to adapt it. Please get in touch again if you need further help.

Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to comment below.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Sep 102017
 

Which sign language to teach a child with Down syndrome in a bilingual family?

 

Question

Hi,

We are a family of three, and expecting our second child. Our daughter will be nearly four when her baby brother is due in November. I’m Finnish, my husband Irish, and we live in the US at the moment.

Even if we use English together, I’ve used only Finnish with our daughter since she was born, and she is fluent in both Finnish and English. Our son has been prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, and we’re thinking of learning some sign language already beforehand. Any ideas on how to do this? Especially, which sign language/languages we should use? Just American? Or Finnish and American?

Then again, we might not stay in the US for too many years, so would it be more beneficial to use Irish instead of American? I don’t know any sign languages and how much they differ, so help would be highly appreciated!

Thank you,
Jonna

Answer

Dear Jonna

Thank you for your question and congratulations on welcoming a new member to your family in a couple of months!

It is indeed a great idea for you, your husband and your little daughter to learn some sign language in expectation of the arrival of your son. Children with Down syndrome have been found to benefit from being taught a sign language alongside spoken language to facilitate communication.

Most children with Down syndrome do learn to speak, although their language development is usually slower than normal. However, their need to communicate is as strong as any other child’s at a young age, so sign language can be used as a transitional communication mode until the spoken language has developed. In some cases, the continued use of signs alongside spoken language has also been found to be beneficial.

As you are using the one parent, one language (OPOL) approach with your daughter, I presume you will continue this with your son. He will learn Finnish from you and English from his dad and the environment, as you will live in an English-speaking country. For this aspect, I recommend that you join the Bilingual Children with Developmental Differences Facebook group run by Eugene Here, whose interview you can find here. Also read Professor François Grosjean’s interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird: Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs.

Since you already have two spoken languages, Finnish and English, in the family, I would recommend that you stick to one sign language. You are right, that there are several different sign languages – for example Irish Sign Language is more similar to French Sign Language than to British! Which sign language you choose is a decision only you can make – how long are you planning to stay in the US? If in a few years’ time you are likely to move to Ireland, you could also choose Irish Sign Language.

However, as you may use the sign language for a transitional phase only, another option for you to consider is a different Augmentative and alternative communication system. For example, Makaton is a “language programme using signs and symbols to help people to communicate. It is designed to support spoken language and the signs and symbols are used with speech, in spoken word order.” Widgit is another system designed to help children and adults with communication challenges.

You may already be aware of these, but I will list some further websites for you to visit:

I also recommend you to reach out to other parents in a similar situation to yours to learn about others’ experiences and to build a support network for when your little boy arrives. You can do this for example through the mentioned Facebook group or the above organisations.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Aug 272017
 

English-only or dual-language school for a trilingual child?

 

Question

Hello,

We have two pre-schoolers (4 and 1.5 years old respectively) who are growing up as trilinguals. I am Korean, and my husband is Persian. We are also fortunate that we live with our mother-in-law who speaks only Farsi and helps raise our children at home.

We have maintained OPOL policy and my 4-year-old boy is very fluent in both Korean and Farsi and he has been exposed to English for a total of nine months or so for the last three years of his life by attending English-only daycare. As you can imagine, he is picking up English really rapidly. He now mixes all three languages when he engages in free play by himself or in his talks with his younger sister. He still talks to me only in Korean and to his father or my mother-in-law in Farsi only. (I also speak Farsi, but I only speak Korean with him).

My question is whether or not it is a good decision to send my son to a bilingual school where he will start learning another language (a fourth language) when he turns five. In the area we live, we don’t have any bilingual programs in schools (except for Saturday heritage language schools, like Korean) that offer any of his home languages, Korean or Farsi.

Our son will attend an English-only preschool for the next year but in the following year, I am thinking about sending him to a bilingual school where he will learn school content in English and in Spanish (or Chinese Mandarin). He will continue with that school in those languages for several years then.

I trust that he has capacity to learn another language, and it would be ideal if any school here offers one of our home languages in the bilingual program. Since that is not the reality, I have determined that it is much better if he goes to a bilingual school than an English-only school, so that he can continue to hang out with multilingual peers and accept multilingualism as normalcy in life and in the world.

I am just worried how we can keep up with supporting him with home languages at the same time when he will be schooled in two different languages.

Thank you for your insights.
Myoung

Answer

Dear Myoung,

Thank you for your question about choosing the right school for your trilingual son and for sharing your family’s language setup.

I am happy to hear that your OPOL-approach has been successful and that your older child now fluently switches between Korean and Farsi – wonderful! By attending English daycare your son is now well on his way to acquiring a third language at the tender age of four. Your question is whether to send him to a dual-language school which would introduce a fourth language for him, either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.

When choosing a school for a child, my first piece of advice is always to find out information about the school to make sure it will provide your son with a high-quality education. Research the school’s website, visit the school and meet the head and some of the teachers and ask to observe a class so you can learn about the school’s teaching style. Find parents whose children have attended the school and ask their opinion. Only when you are satisfied that the quality and reputation of the school meets your expectations should you put it on your shortlist of schools. Which language the children are educated in should not be the paramount or only criteria. (also read this older Q&A where I answered a similar query)

The second thing to think about is your son’s continued education. Is there a dual-language school where he can go on studying either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese in the same way, i.e. not only as a subject on the curriculum? You don’t mention whether you or your husband know Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, so I presume you don’t. If the level of tuition in the chosen additional language was to decrease significantly, you would need to find additional support to maintain the language. Is this available where you live? Will your son be able to use his additional language outside the school and develop it further this way? To maintain a language, it is important that the child has ongoing opportunities to use it.

For this Q&A, let’s assume that the two schools are equally good, and that there are further education options in the additional language, so the choice is whether to go for a monolingual English education or a dual-language school. I agree with your thought that your son is capable of picking up a fourth language provided he gets enough and the right type of exposure to it. I would expect a dual-language school to be able to provide exactly this.

In a dual-language school, both school languages should get enough support. I would however recommend that you to ask the school, whether they expect you to support your son with the additional language. If yes, then this is another aspect to take into consideration – will you be able to do this?

Your concern is whether you will be able to keep up with supporting him with his home languages, Farsi and Korean while he is being schooled in two different languages. As you have a well-established routine of speaking both Farsi and Korean at home, and you continue to stick to his routine, I have no doubt that your son’s oral skills in these languages will be maintained and continue to develop.

You haven’t mentioned anything about literacy and whether you plan to teach him to read and write in both Farsi and Korean as well. If yes, then you need to find the time and the resources to do this. It is not a task that should be underestimated as to how much time and commitment it will take. However, if there are heritage language schools which your son could attend, then these may be an option. From my own and other parents’ experiences, I know that children often are less enthusiastic about attending school on the weekend, so do your best to make these classes as appealing as possible to your son.

Based on these thoughts, I hope that you can come to the best decision about the school choice for your son – please do ask any additional questions you may have below.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Aug 242017
 

Should parents ditch English between them to support their child’s minority languages?

 

Question

Hi there!

First of all, thank you so much for good work on the subject. I have been looking for such a blog for ages and now my wife found it 🙂

We also have a question regarding raising our son to be trilingual. I have read thru all the other cases, but there is one that makes our case different. My wife and I are both multilingual, speaking to each other in English. My mother tongue is German and my wife’s is Spanish. We life in Malaysia, where there are so many languages around, but English is by far the most constant.

Now our plan is to speak to our son (14) months in the OPOL way and kick English out of the family for the moment. Practically, I am talking to my wife in German, she answers in Spanish and vise versa. We want to give him as much exposure as possible to the minority languages, as the boy has plenty of exposure to English without us anyway.

We are planning to leave the country within a year and are not sure yet if it’ll be South America or Europe. We’d have to adjust the language strategy then accordingly. For now, we’d like to hear your opinion whether two or three languages within the family are recommendable. We’re both very fluent and confident in English, so there is no threat of teaching the boy bad English, but maybe the minority languages would suffer too much?

Many thanks up front for your help.

Best regards,
Claudio

Answer

Dear Claudio,

Thank you for your question – happy that you found us!

Your question is whether you and your wife should continue using English as your common language, or start to exclusively use your mother tongues in the home. This would mean that all your conversations would happen in two languages, German and Spanish, and English would no longer be spoken in the home.

You mention that both of you are multilingual, so I presume that you fully understand Spanish and your wife German – otherwise the setup would not be ideal for the communication between the two of you! When my first daughter was born, her father and I did exactly this – we ditched English as the common language to make sure that there was enough exposure to our daughter’s other languages. Would I do the same again? Probably yes.

This said, I don’t think that this would be the natural, or even best option in all families. Of many reasons, the language we have chosen to speak with a person can be difficult to change. Not only does the language proficiency of the other person matter, but also – and often even more so – our emotional attachment to the language. Many couples with different mother tongues have met and started communicating in a third language, which has become the emotionally closest language of their relationship. They might feel strange saying “I love you!” (or something to that effect) in any other language.

As there has been a couple of months’ since you submitted your question, you may already have decided one way or another. If you have, please, do update us in the comments what your decision was and how it is going. If you haven’t, then think about the emotional impact the change of your common language will have. Note that even if you ditch English, you can still say “I love you!” in it! Since you are both used to switching between languages, this might not be at all difficult for you – we are all different.

Since there will be some time before your son plays a bigger part in family discussions, dropping English would allow significantly more Spanish and German to be spoken in the home. You would also avoid having to switch language depending on the situation, and you and your wife would not have to think about when to speak what language. Your son will be the one switching between Spanish and German once he picks them up – and this is fine. You mention that he will get English exposure from elsewhere, so this is another reason that speaks for dropping it as the home language (at least for now).

Your son will find it normal that to two languages are used in a discussion. For a while this might lead to him believing that everyone functions the same, and that everyone should understand him independent of which language he speaks. As soon as you notice that he understands the concept of different languages it is good to explain that some people only understand one language, and that it might be a language he cannot speak!

Depending on the language environment of the country you will move to within the next year, you may find it beneficial to change your family language strategy. Should you move to a German- or Spanish-speaking location, you might want to reconsider your family language. Reintroducing English would help maintain your son’s skills in it, however to develop his English skills, he would need opportunities to interact in it. If your new home is in an English-speaking environment, I would continue with the same OPOL-approach. If your move introduces an additional language, let’s say you move to Italy, then you need to again weigh up the different options. Please do get in touch again, should this be the case!

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Aug 202017
 

Who should speak what language when in a family with three languages to raise a trilingual child?

 

Question

Hello,

We’re a multilingual family living in France. My name is Teresa and I’m Spanish, my husband is French and our common language is English (we started our relationship in California). Now we can communicate in French and Spanish also but we usually speak English together.

We have a one-year-old baby girl, I’m taking care of her for the moment but she will start the nursery in four months. I’m not sure if we’re doing everything ok. The idea was to use the OPOL method: dad in French, mum in Spanish, and English together.

In the beginning, I used to speak with her in Spanish but read and sing in the three languages (that I feel it’s ok), but since two or three months I speak to her in French and Spanish, switching without thinking about, and I’m not sure if that’s correct. I started to speak with her in French because I felt her exposure to the community language was not enough.

So my first question is if I’m doing it correctly. Or maybe I should speak to her in Spanish in the morning and in French in the afternoon?

My second question is about what to do when she’ll start the nursery. It’s ok if during the working days we speak to her in Spanish? And the weekend mum in Spanish, dad in French and English together? Or is better to switch to Spanish our common language and keep speaking to her in our mother language?

I feel a bit confused. I know she’s going to learn French at school/nursery, but I want her to be able to communicate in Spanish and I don’t want her to lose the opportunity to learn also English.

Thank you very much! And thank you for your blog. It’s very interesting and very useful.
Teresa

Answer

Dear Teresa,

Thank you for your lovely feedback and your question about raising your daughter to become trilingual in French, Spanish and English.

For a child to learn to speak a language, there needs to be enough interactive exposure in the language. What ‘enough’ is depends on many different factors and there is no simple answer to this. A third of a child’s waking hours is a figure often quoted, however, I have not come across any reliable recent research which would confirm this. While it is a good goal to have, I know that children can grow up with less exposure than that. The quality of the exposure is of paramount importance, so for a child, 30 minutes of communication with a parent is far more effective than two hours of watching a children’s programme in the language.

You have two minority languages which you want to pass on to your daughter: Spanish and English. Like you say, French is the least of your worries as your little girl will pick up the language very quickly once she starts nursery.

I know that it can be very challenging to be consistent with your language use when you are used to switching between languages depending on the topic, mood or other people participating in the discussion. It is even more difficult if your partner also knows the same languages so that it does not matter which language you speak, you know that you will be understood.

When it comes to your daughter, the way she will learn Spanish as she is growing up is that you speak the language with her. Once she starts nursery, the amount of time you spend with her will significantly decrease, so your Spanish one-to-one time with her is precious. For this reason, I would recommend that you stick to Spanish as much as possible with her. Once she attends nursery and school, French will become her strongest language. If she is used to you also speaking French with you, then it can easily happen that she starts preferring French in all her discussions with you.

What I am saying is that establishing a solid routine to only speak Spanish with your daughter is your best “defence” against French taking over later. There is as such nothing wrong in speaking different languages with your child, but if your goal is for her to become a fluent Spanish-speaker, then the onus is on you to offer her the necessary exposure to the language. It much easier to establish a language routine and stick to it, than it is to try to turn the tide when the majority language starts to take over (although that can also be done).

To answer your first question, my recommendation would be that you stick to Spanish all day long with your daughter. You can still sing songs in whatever language you want, and it is also not a big deal if you sneak in the odd French phrase. However, make Spanish the overall main language between you and your daughter.

With regards to your second question, whether you and your husband should both speak Spanish with her during the weekdays, there are a few things you need to consider. If you were to replace your current common language English with Spanish, this would improve the situation for Spanish, as there would be more exposure to it for your daughter. However, if you did this, the English exposure would be reduced to very little. It is unlikely that your daughter would learn more than to understand some English. She would probably not start speaking it, unless you found some additional source of exposure to the language (such as a playgroup or a nanny). Also, would your husband be happy to switch to Spanish with your daughter during the week?

Independent of which way you decide, there will be little exposure to English, so you should set your expectations accordingly. Although she might not learn to speak English when she is small, you have plenty of opportunities to increase the use of English in the family as she grows and becomes more confident in Spanish (and French, of course). English is probably the language you will find easiest to arrange other forms of exposure to. In any case, she will have a basic understanding of the language which will be very beneficial once she starts learning the language at school.

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Aug 172017
 

Should a bilingual family swap from OPOL to mL@H when moving to a new country?

 

Question

Hello,

thank you so much for this website, it has been such a great resource and source of positive reassurance on our journey to raise bilingual children.

I have a question regarding switching the language method in the family. My husband is American, so English native and is learning German. I am German and speak English almost at native level. Our two children, who are 1 1/2 and 6 years old, grew up in the USA with OPOL (my husband spoke English to them and I spoke German) and both kids attended English-speaking daycare.

We recently moved to Germany. Since then, our older child who understood German perfectly but often refused to speak it when we lived in the US, quickly became fluent and speaks German to me and outside of the home and continues to speak English to her dad. To her younger brother she speaks in English or German. Our younger child was just starting to talk right around the time we moved and uses almost exclusively German words.

Due to my husband’s travel schedule we are concerned that our younger child may not get enough exposure to the English language if we continue with OPOL so we are thinking of switching to ML@H. Can you please give us some advice on the pros and cons of this?

Thank you!
Verena

Answer

Dear Verena

Thank you for your question about choosing the family language strategy after moving from an English-speaking environment to a German-speaking one. Your kind feedback about the site makes my heart sing – this is the reason I keep on writing, speaking and supporting parents, much appreciated!

I understand your concerns about the amount of exposure to English after your move to Germany. The dynamics have changed, as the majority language will now be German instead of English for your children.

Your elder daughter has already taken strides towards German becoming her strongest, and possibly preferred language. Based on experience from other families, it is highly likely she will in due course also start speaking German with her little brother. Once they are both siblings are in school/daycare, German will probably become their common language. This is a normal development in multilingual families. What parents can do to influence the language children choose to speak with each other is to be great role models by continuing to speak the minority language with their kids. Trying to “order” the children to stick to a certain language is in my opinion not to be recommended.

Using one parent, one language (OPOL) while you were living in the US was the natural choice for you and I am happy to hear that you did manage to pass on the German to your elder daughter to a level where she was able to quickly pick up the language once immersed in it in German.

Now when the level of exposure to English has changed drastically, and especially if your husband’s work schedule means that he will be spending a considerable amount of time away from the children, it is the right time to reconsider your family language strategy. Statistically the minority language at home (mL@H) approach is the most effective one when it comes to passing on two languages to children. To maintain and develop your children’s English it would make sense for English to become your family language, i.e. you would switch from speaking German to using English with your children (also when your husband is not present).

Statistics and sense is one thing, feelings are however another. I understand that your English is excellent and that you would have no difficulty in speaking English with your kids, but how does this thought make you feel? The switching process in itself is not easy, but that will just be a phase which you would overcome by staying persistent. It is the long-term effect of your decision you need to consider – do you think you will be fine in using English in any situation? I am not questioning your ability, I just want you to make this decision with an awareness of what it means to the inevitable change in the nuances of communication between you and your kids. Also keep in mind that should it become overwhelming for you, you can always switch back, or even use a variation of the time and place (T&P) approach.

The other thing you need to take into consideration is your son who is only just learning to speak. If you do change to English as your home language, that will become his strongest language until he gets more exposure to German from daycare or playgroups. Small children do pick up a language amazingly quickly once immersed in it, but there is of course a period when they cannot communicate with their peers and teachers. I have been through this with my younger daughter, and she has no averse memories from the time (she is now an adult). My daughter was of course older, six years, however you would expect a more emotional transition phase for an older child unable to communicate than with smaller children who usually adapt more easily.

All in all, I do think that switching to mL@H with English as your home language would be the best bet for your children to grow up fluent in both English and German.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Aug 032017
 

When to teach literacy in the minority language and how to support a bilingual child with a new language

 

Question

Hi,

My son is 3.5 years old. We are from South America (Colombia and Chile) so the language at home is Spanish. My son was born in Australia. He never attended child care there, so he was not exposed too much to English.

Ten months ago, we moved to Malaysia. My son is now attending a Chinese child care where tuition is 100% in English. His English has improved since, and now he is able to communicate with English speakers with no issues.

Now he has started having Mandarin and Bahasa Malay lessons. According to the teachers he is doing very well, being able to understand some instructions in both languages. He is even able to write some symbols in Mandarin.

Some of the concerns we are having at the moment are:

1. His Spanish listening and speaking are very good. When and how should we start teaching him reading and writing? We do not expect to return soon to a Spanish speaking environment.

2. We think English is not and will not be a problem as the school in Malaysia is in English. Should we speak English at home? My husband and myself are both fluent in English and both feel comfortable speaking English to him. However, my son always prefers to speak Spanish with us.

3. Is starting Mandarin and Bahasa lessons at his age the right move? We definitely would like to help him with his Mandarin skills, however, Bahasa is not our priority as we will be leaving Malaysia in three years. Neither my husband nor myself speak Mandarin so it is difficult to help him. What would be your recommendation to ensure he is becoming fluent in Mandarin.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Best regards,
Sonia

Answer

Dear Sonia,

Thank you for your message and questions. What a lovely language rich environment your bilingual child is lucky to grow up in – your son already speaks both Spanish and English and now he will also have the chance to pick up Mandarin (and perhaps some Bahasa).

With regards to your specific questions:

1. When it comes to literacy, my recommendation is to start when your son shows interest in reading. Make sure you have toys and books with the Spanish alphabet and give him the sound when he shows you a letter cube or points at a letter in a book. This is actually how my elder daughter
learnt to readFinnish very early on (though Finnish is amongst the easiest languages there is to learn to read, so I don’t expect this to happen for all kids). Another great tip to encourage literacy is to follow the text with your finger when you read a Spanish book to your son. This way he will learn to make the connection between the sounds and the letters.

2. As you are not planning to return to a Spanish-speaking environment any time soon, I would recommend that you keep Spanish as your home language. If you were to switch to English at home, your son would be exposed to the language almost 100% of the time. This would leave Spanish in a precarious position and your son might soon become reluctant to use it. Switching the language you speak with a child is not an easy thing to do in any circumstance. Changing back to using a minority language once your child has become accustomed to speaking the majority language with you is even more difficult, and takes some serious commitment and patience from the parent. I agree with you that your son will get enough English exposure from his school (and friends) for now.

3. I presume Mandarin and Bahasa are part of the curriculum at your son’s school, so he will attend both language lessons in any case? It wouldn’t be right of me to comment on the school’s tuition, as I do not know any details about it. Be it as it may, introducing new languages through play is an excellent way of starting to learn a language and I see no harm in doing it early on – presuming the teaching methods are suitable for the age group. In your situation, I would leave the Bahasa to whatever the school is teaching and concentrate on the Mandarin.

You can still support your son learning Mandarin, although you do not know the language yourself. First, have you considered learning alongside him? Many parents in monolingual families do exactly this – learn a language together with their children to give them the gift of an additional language. However, if this is not a viable option for you, you can find lots of resources online. For example Panda Mom has a helpful site for your situation, not to forget our very own Family Language Coach, Miss Panda Chinese, Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Jul 272017
 

How far behind can parents expect a bilingual child’s second language to be?

 

Question

Hello,

I have a three-year-old daughter who is bilingual. I speak exclusively English and my husband speaks exclusively Czech to her (since birth). In a typical day, she is exposed to about 70% English and 30% Czech. She listens to music and looks at books in both languages as well as Skypes relatives in Czech each week. She has a tremendous vocabulary in both languages. However, she only speaks sentences in English.

She occasionally uses Czech words to identify things. When her father is speaking to her she understands everything but she does not respond to him in Czech. She has fun translating what she hears from her father into English for me. I am wondering if this is typical progression? How far behind does the second language develop?

If she is at a three-year-old level for English can I expect her to be at a two-year-old level for Czech? Should we be prompting her to speak more Czech (I don’t want to pressure her) and if so, how? We are traveling to the Czech Republic for a month. It is my hope that this immersion will propel her to start speaking more Czech.

I appreciate your expertise and any suggestions you may have for my family.

Thanks in advance!
Kristin

 

Answer

Dear Kristin

Thank you for your question about your little bilingual child’s language development in her two languages, English and Czech.

What you describe sounds like a very typical and to some extent advanced language skills for a 3-year-old. That she has a big vocabulary in both languages at this early age is impressive, and a sign of a normal language development.

The fact that your daughter only speaks in sentences in English is nothing to worry about at this stage. Czech will follow soon, since she gets continuous interactive exposure to the language both from her father and other Czech-speakers via Skype. You mention that the proportion of exposure is 70/30 for English/Czech – based on that ratio, it is perfectly natural that the first language she learns to speak in sentences in is English.

As a couple of months have already passed since you sent in your question (delay is due to the many queries coming in), you will by now have spent a month in the Czech Republic, which will give your little girl’s confidence in expressing herself in Czech a significant boost. You may not notice it at once, but your visit will definitely have a great positive influence on her ability to speak Czech.

You are right in not putting pressure on your daughter to speak – it will happen, and when it does, you will wonder why you were ever worried about it! Just encourage your husband to engage her in conversation as much as possible, e.g. by discussing the story line in books and asking lots of questions.

Every child’s language development is different, independent of how many languages the child learns. Even monolingual children and siblings vary greatly in how quickly they start to understand, say the first word and begin to form sentences. Therefore, I would not want to give you an expected level of fluency for what is now your daughter’s second language.

Like I often mention, patience is a virtue that parents of bilingual children will need to have. It may sometimes take our kids a bit longer to get up to speed with all their languages, but when they do, what a joy for everyone involved!

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin
Jul 132017
 

About language exposure, family language strategy, speaking a non-native language and confusion

 

Question

Hello,

I am Italian but I know English very well so I really want to try to teach it to my one-year-old daughter. I speak English to her since she was three months old. In the beginning I thought to use the OPOL method but it’s really hard for us, because my husband doesn’t speak English at all and I felt I was excluding him.

Now I’m using English with my daughter just when we play and sometimes during the day – is it enough? A part of me is really paranoid because I think I’m not an English mother tongue speaker and I want to use Italian too in my day life, but I love English so much. I really need your advice – what would you do?

I am also really worried of getting my baby confused, because sometimes I switch from Italian to English.

Thanks,
Alice

Answer

Dear Alice

Thank you for your question about speaking English with your daughter to bring her up bilingual in Italian and English.

The one parent, one language method (OPOL) can be hard to implement in a family where one parent does not know the other language at all. That said, in many families the other parent has been able to pick up a lot of the new language just by listening to the other parent using it with the child. Every family should find the best approach for their situation – there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it is possible to use different approaches successfully. What works in one family does not necessarily work in another, although the circumstances might seem similar. Every family is unique and has its own dynamics.

You are now using a variation of the time and place (T&P) where you speak English with your daughter when you play together and occasionally during the day and wonder whether this exposure will be enough for your daughter to learn English.

There is no hard and fast rule for what is enough language exposure. You may have come across a figure of “a third of a child’s waking hours”, but I have not been able to find any research to support this as the magic number for bringing up a bilingual child. There are simply too many variables – most importantly, it is not all about the quantity, but very much about quality. For example, a child who only hears others speak a language (which counts as exposure), but is rarely spoken to directly, will most likely not learn as quickly as a child who has less exposure but has more direct interaction in the language.

You do not mention how much of the time overall you speak English with your daughter, but whenever you do, try to make these situations as effective as possible by engaging your daughter in communication. One-way-communication such as children’s programmes are not as effective as interactive language use. Read this article for more ideas:
3 ways to intensify the minority language exposure for your bilingual child

Your next concern is about using a language which is not your mother tongue with your child. Many parents have successfully done this to pass on an additional language to their children. There are certain things to keep in mind when raising a child in a non-native language, also called intentional bilingualism, but it is doable.
Please read my three-part series on this topic: Considerations, Family language strategy and Activities.

Thirdly you are worried you might confuse your daughter since you switch between English and Italian. Again, switching between languages is a natural thing for bilingual people to do and this is exactly what happens in all multilingual families.
Read this article for more thoughts of bilingualism and confusion: Bilingual children – no language confusion!

To maximise your daughter’s English exposure, I would recommend that you stick to English as much as possible when you speak to her directly. To reiterate, I am not recommending this because there is a risk for confusion, but to establish the routine and maintain the English exposure and making sure the language becomes an active part of your day-to-day life. It is fine that you speak Italian when you are all together and in other situations where you feel it is called for.

Once your daughter is a bit older, you can look for playgroups in English – being surrounded by other children speaking English is an effective language booster. If you are unable to find a group, maybe you could consider starting one yourself and invite other families to join!

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin