How to pass on two minority languages? What about adding a fourth language?

 

Question

Hi,

I have some questions concerning the language acquisition of my yet-to-be-born child. Her dad and I live in France and we always communicate in French, which is dad’s mother tongue and the only language he speaks fluently.

We live in a 99% French speaking environment. I’m Spanish and I have two mother tongues: Spanish and Catalan. I learnt Catalan from my parents and extended family and Spanish everywhere else: school, friends, TV, books…. I’m equally fluent in both languages. I work as a Spanish teacher in a secondary school.

I would like to pass on my two languages (Spanish and Catalan) to my child from birth but I wonder how I can prevent her from mixing them. Should I rather introduce them both at birth – and use each in a different context – or introduce one after another?

Finally, we would really like our child to learn English at an early age. We are considering either an English-speaking or a bilingual (French/English) pre-school but we’re worried 4 languages could be a bit too much.

Thank you in advance for your helpful advice!
Beth

Answer

Dear Beth

Congratulations on the soon-to-be family addition! Thank you for your question on how to raise your child to speak several languages.

I commend you for thinking about this in advance of the birth of your baby. It is so much easier to go in with a plan and know what you are doing than to start without considering the language situation and then notice that you need to make a change. This said, any plan we make for our children’s linguistic upbringing, need to flexible and open to alteration should circumstances call for it.

You have three languages that you and your husband can pass on to your baby: French (majority language), Spanish and Catalan (minority languages). In addition, you would also like your child to learn English at an early age. I will pick up the different languages and what you need to take into consideration for each one of them.

French

This is the easiest one – as your husband only speaks French, this will become your family language. You live in France and your child will without doubt grow up with French as his or her dominant language. I would recommend that you try to speak as little French as possible with your child – even when you are out and about and with other French-speaking people. This is something you and your husband need to discuss in advance, so that he does not feel left out if he were not to understand what you two speak. Also keep in mind, that if you will be the main carer for the first couple of years, your child’s first words may be in Spanish or Catalan, and your husband needs to be prepared for this possibility. Remind him that your child will learn French no matter what, and it is the minority languages which need all the support they can get.

Spanish and Catalan

Passing on two minority languages to your child is possible, but not an easy task. You need to take on this challenge with the knowledge that it requires a lot of commitment, time and patience from you. You wonder whether you should introduce both at the same time, early on, or wait for one to develop before introducing the next one.

I went down the sequential route with my eldest daughter, i.e. I switched from Finnish to Swedish with her when she was five years old. Would I do it differently with the knowledge I have today? Slightly differently, yes – I would have started to introduce Swedish earlier. I would probably not have started both from the very start – this was however due to her father learning Finnish at that time, and I wanted to support him as well (and not bring in a third language). This does not apply in your case – as you can see, every family is different – and you may decide to use both Spanish and Catalan from the start.

Both approaches can work, it depends on many variables. To be able to give you a detailed answer to this, it would fall within family language coaching, which I would do directly with you and your husband. I would need to know more details about exposure times etc. For a child to pick up a language, there needs to be a certain amount of exposure to it during the child’s waking hours. You may have heard the figure of 30% being mentioned – this is a good goal to have, but it has to my knowledge not been proven by research to be an absolute figure. It all depends on not only the quantity, but more so on the quality of the exposure. A child being exposed to a language through TV for half an hour will not benefit anywhere close as much as a child being interactively played with in the language for the same amount of time.

Whether you should start with both languages from the start, depends on how much time you will be able to spend with him or her during the first two or three years. The more time you have, the easier it is to take on both languages straight away. However, if you are planning to return to work full time within a year or so, you need to consider how much one-to-one time you will have with your child after that. Is it feasible to split up the time between two languages?

If you start with both Spanish and Catalan, then I would dedicate a certain time to each language – I would not repeat the same thing twice in both languages. While I know of parents who have successfully passed on two languages by doing it this way, it is not something I recommend, as it is very tiring for the parent and – in my opinion – not a natural way to communicate with your child. You could choose to alternate weekdays/weekends or one or two weeks of one language then switch (like my fellow family language coach Maria does).

If you decide to start with one language and introduce the other later, then you need to choose which one to go for first. My inclination would be to select the language for which there is less other resources – which is most likely Catalan. This is also the language that you have spoken with your family when you grew up, so it will be an emotionally very close language to you. You can start to introduce Spanish early through songs, rhymes and toys, if you want, just to make your child used to the language. When you feel that he or she has a good grasp of the first language, you can gradually introduce more of the other to your day to day life.

English

A child can cope with four languages in parallel. Since English would come from a different source and separate from the other minority languages, it is an ideal way of introducing another language. However, again, you should consider how much time there will be left for Spanish and Catalan. You also need to think about whether you or your husband need to support your child with English.

On the other hand, if your child will attend a nursery anyway, and the other option is a French-speaking one, then you may well go for an English pre-school. I would make the selection (English or dual-language English and French) based on how good the pre-school is generally. Language alone should not be the first criteria when selecting a school. What you also need to take into account is whether your child can continue getting education in English after the pre-school.

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.

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