How to pass on a minority language to a child in a bilingual family

by | Jul 23, 2014 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Family life, Practical advice | 4 comments

How to pass on a minority language to a child in a bilingual family

The number of parents who raise their children in a multilingual environment is increasing. More and more individuals and whole families move from one country to another due to work, studies or other reasons. Couples with different native languages meet and start a family. All this means that many children grow up surrounded by two or more languages, and at least one language will have a minority language status in their lives. As a parent, you have to decide which languages you want your child to learn and who will speak what in the family.

Every family is unique and the circumstances are often very different, so there is no simple answer which would apply to every single family, but in this post I am listing different scenarios and aspects to be considered when you pick the languages you want your offspring to acquire.

One minority language

If the parents speak the same minority language and the child will go to a nursery or school in the majority language, the recommendation is for the parents to adopt a strategy called Minority language at home. The child will grow having a solid foundation in the home language and learn the majority language at nursery or school as well as from friends and other exposure.

If only one parent speaks the minority language, then the parents’ natural choice for family language strategy is One parent, one language. The support from the majority language parents is extremely important in this scenario – there will be situations where the majority language parent may not understand what is being said. Discussing this aspect of the language setup in advance is important to avoid any negative feelings of being left out of the communication.

Two minority languages

If parents speak two different minority languages and want to pass them both on, then the One parent, one language approach is probably the best choice. Each parent speaks their native language to the child, and the child learns the majority language from the environment. If both parents know each other’s languages, then the family’s common language should be the one which the child will have less exposure to.

If only one parent knows the other minority language, then the recommendation is to choose that minority language to be the common one. If the parents do not know each other’s languages and they speak the majority language together, the child will most likely also acquire a receptive knowledge (aka ‘passive speaker’) of it.

Three or more minority languages

Children under about the age of six can in the right environment learn several languages simultaneously, so it is possible pass on three minority languages. However, keeping them all going in a family requires a fair bit of effort and focus from the parents. Each parent can speak their language and speak a third between them – in this scenario, the child will most likely not become fluent in the parents’ common minority language unless some other exposure can be arranged to strengthen the third minority language.

Another option is to choose a variation of the Time and place strategy where a different minority language is spoken depending on when or where the discussion is taking place. For example, one parent can alternate between two minority languages depending on whether it is a weekday or weekend, or in two week periods. Choosing different rooms in the home for the different language is another variation of this strategy.

In a family which juggles three or more minority languages, consistency in the parents’ language use becomes extremely important. Both parents need to be fully committed to the chosen strategy so that the task of passing on the languages doesn’t become a chore or cause disagreements in the family. It is also vital to have other language resources available to support the learning – books, magazines, on-line material, DVDs and so on. If you have access to an immersion school in one of your languages, this is certainly worth considering.

Knowing many languages brings several advantages both to individuals, families and the whole society. When choosing the languages you want your children to learn, it is however important to stay realistic and not get carried away. Language skills are about communication and understanding, and they should be something we enjoy and use. Wishing you a wonderful multilingual family journey!

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  1. Mario

    Hi Rita,

    I’m the editor of the community and I’d like to invite you to subscribe there, where you can freely promote your blog on the session for bloggers. Cheers.

    • bob

      Thank you, Mario.

  2. Gayle Wansong

    Hi Rita, Could you give me your ideas of how to create a language rich preschool environment in a community of minority language speakers. I see that parents think it’s better for their children to speak the majority language. The minority language has no books in their language yet.
    Would you have any sources of academic literature which support this?
    Thank you

    • Rita

      Dear Gayle, thank you for a great question! I take my virtual hat off for you for showing such great care for the children’s language development. We now have both a Forum and a Our Coaches section on the site, so all questions posted in the blog comments are moved to one of these – this way more readers can benefit from the answers. I hope this is ok for you. Your question will be answered by one of our coaches and the reply will be posted on the 9th of October. It will appear on the home page on the day and I will also post a link to it here.



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