Q&A: How to choose the family language strategy?

by | Feb 11, 2016 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Non-native language, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Toddlers | 5 comments



I wonder about minority language (mL) between parents combined with one parent, one language (OPOL), and the benefits of having spoken/understood several languages during childhood without making it to even receptive bilingualism.

We are young parents-to-be from French- and Italian-speaking backgrounds, in a French-speaking context. We both learned the other’s language in our twenties but for now speak French together, the majority language (ML). We agree that my partner (mL speaker) should speak his own language to our child; we’ll go to Italy once or twice a year and make a game of making our child interact with everyone, will certainly have Italian reading material and will most probably see other French-Italian bilingual friends at home. But at the same time, our position is: if we can’t make Italian a habit, we might decide not to push it. Home is not a place for pressure.

My questions are:

Would it be beneficial to all of us if we were to use mL between parents (initiating before birth) and OPOL with the child?

In consequence, should I work on improving my Italian so that we can switch our home-language from French (ML) to Italian (mL)? This would mean greater mL exposition for our child (and prevent a loss of fluency on my partner’s side), but we won’t stick to it until I get better and speaking Italian doesn’t equate with a loss of connection between us (we tried already). I guess that if we were to speak Italian together, the temptation for my partner to speak French (ML in which he’s non-native, but in which we have a history) to our child will be reduced, but I am reluctant to change our habits. So: how impactful is the language spoken by the parents together?

Is it a better idea to say that when Dad is at home, we all speak Italian (more of a time and place approach), or to keep it natural and OPOL?

Secondly, since we don’t want to force things, I want to consider the option that our child doesn’t become a bilingual and ends up being a receptive bilingual instead, or just plainly forgets mL by adolescence/adulthood. We’ve read all sorts of fantastic things about the benefits of bilingualism in the brain’s development, how bilinguals are better at learning language, better problem-solvers and better at focusing /ignoring “noise”. Does that still count if you are bilingual as a toddler or child but don’t pass the 9-year-old threshold?

In my opinion, if all that remains are fond memories from childhood, I’m glad all the same. Learning Italian is anyway easy for any French-speaker. But if the experience helps our child to be a better language-learner (in any language) and gives her or him better abilities, then I might be more motivated.

Thanks for your answers and support.

Thank you,

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Hello Celine,

I find your question fascinating, especially as I can relate on a very personal level. I also appreciate your grounded perspective concerning the environment you would like to create in your home regardless of your multilingual goals. On this respect, I agree with you 100%. A harmonious family life is the most important component in raising children who will then become well-adjusted, contributing members of society. Bilingualism, whether receptive or active, would be a plus.

I think it is very important for you and your partner to evaluate your goals as well as your motivations for raising a multilingual child and I find it especially refreshing to hear you consider the option of not raising your child bilingual at all. It shows that you truly have his best interest at heart, rather than the pursuit of your own ambitions. I would just like to add that raising multilingual children is truly a journey (just like parenthood) and that it’s wise to evaluate and adapt at regular intervals throughout. Your child and his or her personality will no doubt influence the strategy you adopt and many things will become more clear once he or she is with you.

That said, planning ahead is smart, so here are the answers to your questions about which family language strategy to use.

With respect to what language you should use between parents, I would say to choose the language that feels most natural to you. My husband and I also went through these same type of ponderings and after different very unnatural attempts and what felt like “playing house” to us, we decided to retain our language of love (the language we spoke to each other since we met and fell in love – English) and this regardless of the impact we felt it might have on our children. We concluded that our relationship was the foundation for our family and we should therefore choose the language that would allow us to feel at ease communicating with each other.

The impact that your shared language as a couple will have on your child(ren) depends on a myriad of other factors. In our case, our shared language is also one of my children’s minority languages and it has therefore reinforced their knowledge of, expression of and affinity for English. So that is something you should take into consideration. Will your shared language be your child’s minority or majority language or another altogether? But other things to consider are the respectability of the language in the area where you live, the availability of media (especially films) in the target language and also the amount of contact that you have with speakers of that language. Another aspect to consider is how much quality time you will spend together as a family. Will both parents work? In or out of the home? Long hours? Will you have long or frequent vacation periods? Consider the practical aspect of how much time you will spend interacting all together.

To answer your final question, my unequivocal answer would be yes! Early childhood bilingualism is extremely beneficial even if the child does not progress beyond a certain age. However, to more fully appease your inquiry, I would like to direct you to an article from Bilingual Kids Rock where the following four benefits are addressed: emotional benefits, practical benefits, the educational advantage, and the cultural advantage. The title of the article is “Why Raise a Bilingual Child: 4 Powerful Benefits.” It is well-written, accessible and I think you’ll relate well to the author’s experience and point of view.

One last thing, if you can make childhood magical in the majority and minority language, creating happy memories along the way, your child will naturally love both languages and won’t want to let go of either one. This has been my experience, a very rich and rewarding bilingual journey that we’ve been on these past 15 years with our four trilingual children. To learn more about how we have adapted OPOL to fit our family’s needs, read here: “Why we Stick to OPOL”.

If you have any further questions or require clarification on any of the points above, please don’t hesitate to write again. I wish you the very best as you embark on parenthood and hope that you will be able to join us on the bilingual journey as well.

Kind regards,

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Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Rita

    Dear Celine,

    thank you for your excellent question! I also commend you on thinking ahead and being so open-minded about the situation. I agree with what Maria said and just want to add a few points:

    When my eldest daughter was born, her father and I were speaking English with each other – it was the language we met in and what we had been speaking together. After three months we however decided to change our common language, as we both felt we did not want to keep on speaking a language which was not a native one for either of us. He was learning Finnish at the time and was in no way fluent in it, so initially I said everything three times and he answered in very short sentences. It was not easy, but it worked, as we made the decision together and it soon became the norm. I have to mention that his Finnish skills improved at an amazing pace!

    What I want to say is that whatever you decide to do, make sure you are both 100% agreed on your plan – it will make it so much easier to stick to. Our situation can not be compared to yours, of course, as you would be switching to a minority language were you to start speaking Italian when all the family is together, but I would still not rule it out as an option. Maybe not all the time, but on occasion. (your child will not get confused by this)

    Another thing I want to mention is that as far as bilingual benefits go, having known a language as a child, will make it significantly easier to relearn it later on in life – in so far the advantage stays. The research with regards to brain development has been done on older bilingual people who have been switching between languages all their life. The act of switching between languages and keeping “interfering” languages at bay makes the executive control centre work harder and thus develop stronger. That said, there are many other ways of brain training with which you can achieve a similar result.

    Because both of you know both languages fairly well, you might also consider the lesser known 2 parents, 2 languages (2P2L) approach.

    In any case, I – like Maria – also think that your child will feel strongly about both your languages and will grow up to become bilingual. And you may wonder what all the fuss was about later on 🙂

    Best of luck!

  2. Celine

    Hey there,

    I want to thank both of you for you warm, precise, complete and comprehensive answers.

    We still don’t know how we will feel things and, depending on that, what we will apply between mL@H, OPOL, T&P and 2P2L (thanks for the mention Rita, I hadn’t heard of that last layout), but we actually switched to Italian already ! 🙂 I wanted to improve in it anyway and felt sure it would benefit our family (in the broader sense too : keeping the bonds between my family-in-law and my native family). It doesn’t feel unnatural the way it did previously, though I can’t express myself in Italian if I’m nervous (my mistakes and infuriated code-switchings provide some comic relief in arguments though, that’s handy).
    FYI, I read somewhere it took like 6 weeks to get used to another language in a couple unit. Granted, I guess, that you can reasonably express yourself. That was the factor that made it possible for us this time (along with baby-motivation) : I had improved. I also started compiling and studying vocabulary & common sentences on my phone (with Anki, a spaced repetition flashcard app – Anki (暗記) is the Japanese word for memorization), which for the 2 first weeks made me reach in my pocket for my phone every 10 minutes during conversations !

    In our situation it seems very usefull to have the mL as the family language, given the long hours of work outside for my husband. I don’t want the little time we’ll have all together split between ML and mL, it would be unfair competition rather than cooperation. I’ll try to have my partner speak only Italian home, and when the kid is there we could also use a puppet (/doll/hand-sock/cat) that only understands Italian, contrary to dad who understands French and might slip in it inadvertently (of course, the Italian family can fit this role too with phone calls – additionally, they are real people, making those calls immensely more meaningful than interaction with a puppet, but I’m focusing on everyday opportunities here). Reading material and videos are not a problem to find in Italian either, I just worry about real live interaction – we only know Italians who speak French too, here, so they tend to speak ML to anyone and I don’t think I’ll be policing around all the time to make them speak Italian with our kid !

    For now we’ll focus on improving my Italian and grounding our habit of speaking it between the two of us, and then see how things go when baby’s there. I guess we could compromise with my partner speaking only mL and me speaking both, ML to my kid and mL to my partner. And we can both read her books in any language the book happens to be ! That’s like 2P2L with some mL-affirmative-action.

    Tanks again for reading me and answering so thoughtfully,

    • Rita

      Sounds fantastic! And I agree about Anki, it is a great app to learn vocabulary and phrases. 🙂

  3. Celine

    I read the 2P2L post, so yeah that’s what I meant, it’s probably our best bet with parent speaking only mL ^^

    • Celine

      *one parent


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