Minority language at home – mL@H: use it if you can!

by | Apr 22, 2015 | Choosing the right family language strategy, Family life, Practical advice | 12 comments

Minority language at home – mL@H: use it if you can!
The first post in the series about bilingual family language strategies was about one parent/person, one language or simply OPOL as it is generally known. Now it’s the turn of the approach called minority language at home, with the slightly more complicated acronym of mL@H.

As the name indicates, a family that uses the mL@H strategy only speaks a minority language with each other. The family’s common language can, but does not have to be the native language of both parents. The children become sequential bilinguals, as they learn the minority language first and the community language later from other sources, normally when starting nursery or school. (In an OPOL family, the children are normally simultaneous bilinguals, which means that they learn both/all their languages in parallel.)

The mL@H system has its obvious advantages, in so far that it is clear who speaks what language to whom in the family and that there is no need for translations within the home, but you will also come across words of warning if you search for advice on mL@H.

Some have claimed that it requires “strong nerves by the parents, since the child may not catch up with his monolingual peers in the majority language until around 5 years of age”. Yes, it may feel a bit worrying to send your little one out into the world with no or only limited knowledge of the language they will be surrounded by all day (I know I did, though my 6-year-old daughter did not seem to mind). Experience has however shown that children are very adaptable and quickly pick up a language once submersed in it. A “risk for complete linguistic isolation”, even a small risk, is a bit far-fetched in my mind – children do not need a common language to find ways of playing together and coming up with alternative ways of communicating!

Another caveat, equally unlikely in my opinion, is that if parents “decide to speak the minority language at home, but not in public, child might feel that this language is not being good enough to be spoken in public. This may affect the child’s identification with the minority language.” Generally mL@H families always speak the minority language, independent of where they are – it is unusual to switch language at the door step (although there are families who do this). I strongly believe that parents should not only pass on their language, but also their pride in their language and culture and by doing this, the child will not regard the home language being second rate.



The mL@H may not have been as popular as OPOL in the past, but today it has the support of several experts. In her research, Professor Annick De Houwer found that 96% of children growing up in a family that uses mL@H become bilingual, making it the strategy with the highest overall success rate. Professor François Grosjean also favours this approach, because it “has a clear advantage in that the weaker language (the home language) will receive much more input than if only one parent uses it”. Professor Barbara Pearson Zurer finds that with mL@H “parents are carving out a domain for the minority language where it doesn’t have to compete for the child’s time and attention”, thus giving the minority language a solid base.

Should every family raising bilingual children now switch to mL@H?

Of course not. Statistically the answer may be ‘yes’, but in real life this is not possible. The mL@H approach works well if parents have a language in common in which they are comfortable enough to make it the only language they speak to their children. If one parent feels awkward (or, perish the thought, both do) and not confident about using the language, I cannot recommend the mL@H approach. I have said this many times before, and I will say it again, the very purpose of language is communication, if the choice of language becomes something that negatively affects the relationship between a parent and a child, in my opinion, it is not the right choice. There are other ways of making sure your children become bilingual, not being able to fully connect with your offspring is too high a price to pay. Also, OPOL has worked wonderfully well in many families and may well do for you, too! (Also keep an eye out for the next articles in this series for further approaches).

So who should use the mL@H strategy?

The obvious candidates for the mL@H system are migrant families who move to a place where the language the family members already speak with each other changes from being the majority language of the community to being the minority one. A move is a big upheaval in any family life, keeping the same language is beneficial on many levels. It offers a continuum in a situation where most other aspects of the family life changes and serves as a “safe haven” for the family language.

mL@H is also definitely worth considering if both parents know a common language well enough to be using it on a daily basis and in different scenarios with their children. If I had to decide whether to speak a language which is not my native one with my child, I would ask myself questions such as:
– Would I feel comfortable to discuss a difficult matter in the language – an example would be that my child has been bullied at school, could I find the words to express myself?
– Will I resent not using my mother tongue later on in life?
Changing the language you speak with your child is not easy, I know this for sure. Note that you do not have to be accent-free or even perfectly fluent (whatever those terms mean) to speak a certain language with your child – your little one will not pick up your small deviations from the agreed language norm (but may well soon start pointing them out to you).

Taking the above into account, would I recommend that you choose mL@H as your family language strategy? Yes, I would, if it feels right for you.

What about you – is mL@H your strategy of choice? How are you getting on?

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I grew up with this strategy since my family are immigrants. I remember being appalled by families where the parents were so concerned with fitting in that they stopped using their heritage language. The result was an awful, ugly, grammatically incorrect and heavily accented attempt at “helping their kids learn English”. I became fluent on English, the majority/community language, within the first year (age 8), and was able to keep my native language and literacy plus learn a foreign language later in school.

    However, this is not the approach I’m using with my daughter bc I married someone from another linguistic background, and we both want to pass on our native languages.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for your comment, Karolina. You are right, unfortunately many immigrant families are not aware of what the best approach is, and – as you say – are eager to fit in their new home country. It is understandable that they think that learning the language as quickly as possible by making the whole family switch is the best option. What we do need to keep in mind that these parents make what they believe is the best decision for their children – what is needed is support and advice for these families to give them confidence in using their own language.
      I am glad that the bilingualism is continuing to the next generation in your family – good luck to you all!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    My son is 5 and his mother language is English, I’m trying to speak in Spanish with him. He know some words but what could be the best method to turn bilingual? He is with me on weekends.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for your question, Juan! I will send you an email to find out some more information, then we can feature your question in the Q&A section in May. Kind regards, Rita

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Hi,

    My wife and I have so far adopted the OPOL strategy. Her native language is English, mine is Dutch, which is the majority language since we live in the Netherlands.

    Our two children have a clear preference for Dutch. They understand English perfectly well, but don’t usually speak it.

    We’re now considering switching to “minority language at home”, which would require me to speak English at home to the kids (3 and 8 years old). I’m hesitant however, since my English is not perfect (though I do consider myself to be fluent and have been speaking English every day for the past 15 years at home and/or at work) and I certainly have an accent. I’m also a bit concerned about changing strategy mid-way and it feels a bit awkward to not speak my native language with my kids, though that may just take some getting used to. It may help getting the kids to speak more English, which I’d highly value.

    Any advice you could give; e.g. is it wise to switch strategy in these circumstances?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Dear Bart
      Thank you for your question. As we now have a Q&A section on the site, all questions are handled through there and your query will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 24th of September. You will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day, and I will also send you the link directly.
      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Hi, my husband is Australian and I am Spanish. We currently live in Spain with our one year old daughter. We decided to take the ml@H approach since the very beginning since her dad spends less time at home than me and the exposure to the minority language wouldn’t be enough. Recently I am concerned about our decision, she seems not to be talking or repeating words at the same level as her toddler friends. I’m worried that my accent/ pronunciation or lack of knowledge in some areas could be a handicap for her in the long run.
    Also, when I think about 10 years down the track, I can’t picture us having a complex conversation in English, Spanish seems more natural.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Aurelia, thank you for your comment and question. I will only give you a short answer, as we have the Q&A section where we give more in-depth replies to parents’ queries. Please do not compare your toddler with others – children vary greatly at the speed they progress linguistically. If she understands simple sentences and reacts accordingly, you are fine. Your accent will not be a problem either as she will hear the native one from her dad. You may want to consider a variation of the Time and Place strategy so you can continue using Spanish for those complex questions (see point 2 in my response of this Q&A).
      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Aurelia, I also live in Spain, I’m from New Zealand and my wife Spanish. We did the one language per parent way and we are now regretting that as my 2 year old is really struggling with English. Living in Spain they will always learn Spanish, so I think it’s better to focus as much on English as possible. My wife is now starting to speak English to our daughter when I’m home, to try and force that when daddy is home the only language to be spoken is English. Thanks

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Thank you TC for your feedback, its nice to hear from someone under our same circumstances. We will take your advice on board! I always try to speak English to her even when we are home alone and, as challenging as it is at times, i really think it pays off. Good luck!

        Reply
  5. Avatar

    Hi.

    I have a question about mL@H I hope you can help me with.

    My husband is Spanish and I am Danish, and until now (our daughter is 16 months) we have used OPOL. However, as I am fluent in Spanish (we live in Denmark) we have now decided to start using mL@H instead of OPOL.
    Our daughter attends Danish daycare, and is used to hearing me speak Spanish with my husband, so it really shouldn’t be any problem transitioning. However, I’m unsure if I should speak Spanish at all times with my daughter or mainly just at home? As the name indicates, we have to speak the minority language at home, but what about when I’m at daycare with my daughter or with my Danish family? If my husband is there, I will of course speak Spanish, but what about situations outside home (without my husband being present), where I will be speaking Danish with family/friends/others? Should I still address my daughter in Spanish in these situations? I know that you should find an approach that works for your family, but I’m just wondering what the recommended strategy is.

    Thanks a lot.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hello and sorry for the very late reply, there was a general issue with the comments whichs I only recently detected.
      It is great that you are supporting Spanish by speaking it at home. When you are out and about, whithout your husband, feel free to use which ever language you feel comfortable with. You do not have to be strict in always speaking Spanish. Your daughter knows what you speak Danish anyway.
      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply

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