Q&A: Should we switch our family language strategy to support the minority language?

by | Sep 24, 2015 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 1 comment



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?

Thank you,


Dear Bart,

Thank you for asking this question. It happens very often that multilingual families switch from one method to another, or combine them because situations change and, like you observed, children may not actively speak one of the languages we want them to become fluent in. By choosing to speak English to them, you will certainly increase their need to talk it, and this seems a very valuable strategy.

My question is: do you live in an area where your children could go to playgroups or after-school clubs, or meet other English-speaking children? Having to speak a language with peers is a very successful way to make children speak and improve their language skills.

If you don’t have this opportunity where you live, you may want to introduce English with your children at a slow pace. You could start by talking English with them only during the weekends, when their mother is there too. It would become your weekend/family language and it would make it easier for your children. This would also allow you to keep on talking Dutch with them during the week, which surely will help them as well – thinking of helping them with their homework etc. (I suppose your children attend a Dutch school?). Please try to introduce it in a way that it is interesting and fascinating for your children. It will make the change easier for all of you. For example, you could choose an activity you all like and start “sharing it by talking English” only for a few hours or half a day and then increase the exposure time.

If then, after a while, speaking only English at home feels natural to you – and your children agree, i.e. respond to you in English – you can still decide if you want to switch to English or keep some Dutch-talking-days. I wouldn’t worry about the accent: children are very good at filtering and usually don’t copy it if they have someone else (mother, extended family and maybe friends?) talking with a native accent to them on a regular basis. Also, listening to English songs and learning rhymes, reading English books (there are some apps and sites where they can listen to stories online), will surely help them become more confident too.

Before skipping Dutch completely, I would ask you to consider the following: would you feel comfortable to talk English when you are with your Dutch family? How would you speak with your children when in a Dutch environment? Also, if your children attend a Dutch school, you may want to speak Dutch with them when their Dutch friends are around. Like you say, by talking 100% English with them you may not feel comfortable.

Therefore, I would advise you to try to introduce English slowly and see how your children react. You can tell them overtly why you are doing it and that you want it to be fun for all of you.

Please let me know how it works. In addition, if you are looking for English-speaking playgroups or families in your area, let me know by commenting below. I live in The Hague area and know several groups in Delft, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Almere.

Ik wens jullie familie heel groot success met het tweetaalige opvoeden van je kinderen!

With very kind regards,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.

1 Comment

  1. laia

    Hej Ute (and Bart),
    in case it is useful here, I will explain my experience at home. We use 3 languages at the same time. We live in Sweden so the strong language is Swedish, while the minor are English and Catalan. My partner and I use English to communicate among us; my partner speaks Swedish to my kid (6 years old) and he answers in Swedish; I speak Catalan to my kid and immediately say the same in English, so my partner can understand what I said to the kid; the kid talks always to me in Catalan, so when I answer him In Catalan I use formula like repeating his thoughts or questions in English. As you see, it is not easy but that’s the formula that we use and helps us.
    If it also helps, I will like to add that this is very recent context since my kid and me moved to Sweden just two years ago. This means that my kid learnt fluent Swedish in this time, and due to the formula that we use he is increasingly understanding English… to the point that he plays in English (!?) with a school mate (who speaks English at home). He says that he can then learn English (:-)), but he never uses English at home, I guess because he is use (confortable) to this (mixed) OPOL system.
    What I would like to raise here is that kids manage to be fluent in the languages as far as you do not force them, confuse them, and never make any negative comment about how they communicate and which language they use. Moreover, I am sure that at early ages the confusion and limitation of language skills (e.g. limitation of vocabulary is a matter of age and maturity, not due to the number of languages in their head) is perfect normal, and by the time coming they will more and more fluent in all languages: the social and mass media communication tools help us a lot.
    Best, Laia


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