Q&A: How to adapt the family language strategy when the minority language changes?

by | Aug 13, 2015 | Challenges, Coaches, Marianna DuBosq, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family | 0 comments



I follow your blog and have found your advice extremely helpful in bringing up my daughter as a bilingual child. A little background, my husband and I are both perfectly fluent in English and Spanish both verbally and written and in professional and casual settings. We currently live in Mexico and have a 2 yr. old daughter, but will be moving back to the US in 4 months.

Not knowing we would move back, we decided to adopt the minority language at home technique where we only speak to her in English and also began speaking only English with each other (we used to speak more Spanish between us before she was born). She attends full-time daycare in Spanish, so has contact with many children in that language, she also hears both her dad and me interact with others in Spanish. When we are in a social setting, we talk to her in Spanish if we need others to feel involved, but say it immediately in English too. At home we only read to her in English and she only watches about one hour of English cartoons at home. She speaks with full phrases (beginning to use few sentences) in English and uses one- to two-word phrases in Spanish, but understands both languages equally. She is aware of Spanish and English words (for example, she says ‘mano’ for Spanish, ‘hand’ for English and does this with several words like mommy/mama, daddy/papa, ball/pelota, etc) and is also aware of who speaks what language, where she will say something to me in English and then use a few Spanish words to tell our maid the same thing.

We are wondering what our strategy should be once we move? It should not be a problem to switch to all Spanish at the house and speak to her only in Spanish – although my husband has admitted that he is much more comfortable speaking to her in English. She will also see my parents everyday who speak Spanish to her. I personally do not like cartoons in Spanish, so I don’t think I will show her those, but can start reading to her only in Spanish. My concern is that by doing this we will throw her off a little and maybe change her behavior and her attachment to us since we’ve only used English with her since she was born. She is a lot more quiet with people who speak Spanish and keeps more to herself. With us she is a chatterbox so I don’t want to change that. Should we slowly transition her to Spanish at the house, maybe adding a couple of hours a day until we are full-day Spanish?

I thought I had all this planned out perfectly and now with the move I am so confused. Our goal remains the same though: for her to be fluent in both, both verbally and written, like us. She has family members that she sees very often who either speak English only or Spanish only and we want her to be able to communicate with all of them and also we may move back to Mexico one day and need her to have a high level of Spanish for her to transition perfectly at school the way my husband and I did, if needed.

Thank you so much and sorry for the long winded question,

UPDATE: Since i wrote to you I tried to start speaking more Spanish to her and it has been one of the most difficult things to do… I know, from lots of experience, that once you begin speaking to someone in a certain language it is very difficult to make the switch, but never imagined this would happen with my own daughter – being that Spanish is my first language. My husband has all but given up and feels like his relationship with her is completely changed if he speaks in Spanish. This transition has really been a challenge for the two of us. This has also happened to both sets of grandparents. Both my parents and my husband’s mother are native Spanish speakers, but find it extremely difficult to switch to Spanish when the speak to her.

My daughter however seems to be adapting well. Her vocabulary has increased exponentially in both languages where she is now using three to four word phrases in both languages. She is able to switch back and forth and answer in the language that a question is asked. However, English is still her preferred language – she initiates any interaction in English and demonstrates a far better vocabulary and pronunciation compared to Spanish.

Any advise on how we can make this easier for all of us, if you think that switching to Spanish at home is the right way to go?

Thank you,

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Thank you for reaching out to the Multilingual Parenting team regarding your language concerns.

It looks like just when you were in a groove on your language journey, everything got turned upside down on you! Take heart, many multilingual parents before you have been faced with similar situations and have had to make changes along the way and adapt their language policy.

To summarize your concerns, you have always used a Minority Language at Home policy where both you and your husband speak English to your two year old daughter while she is learning the community language, Spanish, primarily through daycare. It sounds like you have also been fortunate enough to have both sets of grandparents provide you with language support and exposure to your target language English. Now you have the added wrinkle of having the target language and community language switch on you!

To answer your general question, no, changing the language policy will not cause any long term confusion for your daughter. The concern is less about confusing your daughter and instead more about making sure that she feels comfortable. Even though there are some patterns that arise for children as it relates to language learning, at the end of the day every child is different. I always encourage parents to take their child’s personality into consideration whenever you are changing or introducing a language policy. You want to make sure that your child feels at ease in the environment that you are creating around them and especially if it is going to affect their home life. For many children, this is their safe space and we want to make sure that we are respecting it as such.

It sounds like you are already taking steps in the right direction by making the transition gradually. You mentioned that your daughter is quieter around those that speak Spanish and so it is important to follow her cues and take that into consideration whenever you are implementing the transitional changes. It sounds like your daughter has reacted positively to the policy change which is great! It is natural that she still feels most comfortable in English since that is the language she has been exposed to the most but I am certain that with time and rich vocabulary input her Spanish will develop quiet well.

Now here is perhaps the trickier part and that is that you will also have to address the transition with your husband and your other family members. Just like it is important for our little ones to be comfortable with our language choices, we as parents want to also be content with those choices. It sounds like your husband is really having a tough time with the transition. Have you considered implementing a One Parent, One Language (OPOL) strategy instead? If you feel comfortable with speaking Spanish to your daughter, but your husband prefers English, this may be a very valid option for you. Many multilingual families have applied this strategy and successfully raised bilingual children.

Having a strong father-daughter relationship is important and I would not want you to jeopardize it based on your language choice. The linguist Madalena Cruz Ferreira, shared a very valuable quote with me on a podcast interview. She shared that “at the end of the day, what your children really need is parenting.” Keep that in mind and that may help you all arrive at decision that makes you feel more comfortable. The same can be applied for the grandparents. If they really do not feel comfortable switching at this point, give it time. Make the transition gradual for them too and do not rule out the option of having them simply speak the language they prefer. You could make up for the exposure they were previously providing to the target language through other activities.

One last thought I would like to leave you with is that just because you choose a strategy like OPOL now does not mean that you cannot revisit it later. That may feel really daunting now since you are going through a transition right now but later on it may just feel like the right choice after all.

Best of luck on the upcoming move and the changes. I commend you for really taking the time to think through this and staying committed to your language goals. In a few years, this will just seem like a little hiccup along the way but one that you will be glad to have worked through.

Please let us know how you get on with the change!

You can now also listen to Marianna’s answer in her podcast!

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq was born in Caracas, Venezuela where she spent the majority of her childhood as a monolingual speaking only Spanish. Until one day, right before her thirteen birthday, her family moved to the United States and her adventure and passion for language learning began! Her love for languages started with her own experience and grew into a desire for teaching others leading her to spend several years in the classroom teaching dual language learners. She is now facing the most challenging yet rewarding facet of her life, that of a multilingual parent with a mix of English, Spanish and German! Marianna is the blogger and podcast host at Bilingual Avenue where she interviews multilingual parents sharing their best practices along with experts in the field of multilingualism providing actionable tips and strategy. She has a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction.


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