For the last four weeks I have written articles on different family language strategies: one parent/person, one language (OPOL), minority language at home (mL@H), time and place (T&P) and two parents, two languages (2P2L) and today’s question is: Do you HAVE to have a family language strategy to successfully bring up bilingual children?
The answer is of course ‘no!’ – kids grow up learning more than one language all over the world without their parents having given the slightest thought to how it will happen. I am one of these children – I know my mother and father never sat down to discuss what language strategy they should use for my brother and myself. In spite of that, we both became fluent in two languages and a dialect while growing up. Why am I then spending so much time writing and talking about the importance of having a plan?
If the circumstances are right, children will naturally grow up learning two, three or even more languages.
So what are these “right circumstances”?
1. Enough and varied exposure to all the languages
There are no hard and fast rules as how much exposure is “enough”. It depends on several factors: quality of exposure (interactive vs. one-way), fluency expectation (basic to academic) and personality (how talkative a person is), to mention a few. If the exposure time to a certain language is less than twenty percent of a child’s waking time, the child may become a receptive bilingual, i.e. can understand but cannot or is unwilling to speak the language.
2. Wanting and needing to speak the languages
If a child does not feel the need to speak a language or of some reason does not want to use it (see this post for reasons why your child might be reluctant to speak), then even a high amount of exposure may not be enough to make the child an active speaker of the language.
3. Opportunities to speak the languages
If the family lives in a multilingual community, where both (or all) family languages are common, this will give the child many more opportunities to speak all the languages on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. Of course, these chances to use the language can also be arranged with the help of extended family and friends, but in any case, “use it or lose it” is very much the case for maintaining a language skill. Children who have had a nanny who spoke a different (minority) language than the parents, may have learnt to speak it, but if later on they do not have any other people to use it with, they will most likely struggle to keep the language going. Should they want to “relearn” it, they will however pick it up much quicker than those who start from scratch.
4. Positive attitude to different languages and cultures
A favourable sentiment towards multilingualism and multiculturalism both within the family itself and the surrounding community has a significant positive influence on a child’s willingness and motivation to learn a language. Parents should act as role models for championing the use of the family languages.
5. Parental confidence and belief in language learning
For a child to grow up learning the family languages, it is important that the parents feel confident about passing on their languages, and that they think it is possible to do. “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right!”
If all the above main components of the “right language environment” for growing up bilingual are present, the odds of a child successfully acquiring the family languages are good, and choosing a family language strategy may not be essential.
However, if there is less exposure to a certain language, and one or more of the other criteria are not met, I would recommend setting up a Family Language Plan. (In my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, I give instructions on how you can create a unique plan for your own family.) You may have to make some bigger changes to how languages are used in the family, or just a few tweaks might be enough to give your little one a better chance of growing up bilingual, and improve the odds for you giving your child a gift that keeps on giving!
This post concludes my series on different family language strategies, I hope you have enjoyed reading them!