When more than one language is spoken in a family, parents in face the choice of whether their child should learn both (or all) languages in parallel or if they should let the child’s skills in one language become established before starting to learn the second (and possibly a further) language.
Sequential or simultaneous bilingualism
The decision whether to go for one language at a time (also known as sequential bilingualism) or choose speak both since birth (also known as simultaneous bilingualism) depends on a few factors. The main things to take into consideration are how much exposure the child is going to get for each of the languages and whether one of them is going to be the strong majority language once the child starts attending nursery or school.
In families which use the one parent, one language (OPOL) family language strategy, children are usually simultaneous bilinguals. If both parents speak a minority language and have chosen the minority language at home (mL@H) approach, and if the child does not learn the next language until after the age of three or four years, the child is a sequential bilingual. Note that these are just names for the order in which languages are learnt, and children can become equally fluent in their languages independent of whether they are sequential or simultaneous bilinguals.
The decision of course depends on what languages each parent knows and what language pattern is viable in the family. Each family is unique and will have to adapt any suggested approach according to their circumstances.
Language learning order is relevant for sequential bilingualism
When it comes to sequential bilingualism, one important aspect needs to be considered. If a child learns the majority language first and parents plan to introduce the minority language at a later stage, maybe once they are confident that the child knows the majority language well enough to speak to other children, then they might find that they will have to put in a considerable amount of effort to teach the child the minority language. This is especially the case if there is little exposure to the minority language outside the home.
It is understandable that parents for example in families which have recently moved to a country are concerned whether their child will cope at nursery or school if they are not fluent in the community language. Unfortunately, such families are sometimes recommended to teach their children the majority language instead of maintaining the minority language(s). This is however not the right advice. If parents switch to the majority language, the likelihood is, that the children will not learn the minority language at all, or become so called receptive bilinguals, which means that they understand but are unable to speak the minority language.
Why switching to the majority language is not the right choice
There are several reasons why the advice to switch to speaking only the majority language with a child is highly questionable.
- Research has shown that a solid home language, independent of which language, is extremely important for a child’s success at school. Switching to speaking the majority language can actually do a child more harm than good.
- The switch will jeopardise the survival of the minority language as an active language for the child.
- At least one parent will have to start speaking a language he or she is not used to speaking with the child.
- Parents may themselves not be fluent in the majority language, and are actually not the right people to teach it to their children.
Is it too late to introduce a minority language?
Does this mean that if you didn’t start teaching your child your language since he or she was born, the boat has sailed? Of course not. You can start at any time, but you do need to be prepared to put in a concerted effort – read my post on (re)introducing a family language for ideas. Also, please remember that even a receptive language knowledge will benefit your child and make it easier to learn it later in life.