Most advice for parents raising bilingual children is based on the presumption that there are two parents actively involved in the upbringing. What if you are a single parent and don’t have the support of a partner – can it still be done? This is a question that has been put to me quite a few times, hence today’s post.
I know some experts discourage single parents from attempting to raise bilingual children, as it is not an easy task. Things to take into consideration are:
Will you be the person passing on the minority language?
If yes, how much time will you be able to spend with your child?
Will sticking to the chosen language cause extra pressure for you?
I am stating the obvious here, but being a single parent is not an easy thing to do at the best of times, so you need to be realistic about what you can take on. There are a lot of benefits in becoming bilingual for your child, but a highly stressed-out parent due to additional pressure from chosen common language is a very high price to pay for it. However, if you feel passionate about it and, after taking the above into account, it is doable. I also believe that you can do it and commend you for it. It will take a fair amount of determined commitment, a lot of your time, some help from others and maybe a bit of money, depending on the circumstances.
As with two-parent families there are also different language set-ups for single-parent families. Each scenario will need its unique approach.
Bilingual, single parent
If you speak two languages (one of which is the majority language of where you live) and want to pass on both of them to your child, the best (and arguably easiest) option is to speak the minority language with your child. Although you know both languages, it is better to only speak the minority one with your child, as this is the one for which there will be less exposure available. Your child will learn the language of the community by the latest in nursery or school. You would be using the minority language at home (mL@H) approach.
If you speak two minority languages and want to pass on them both of them, then you should set some structure to how you speak the languages with your child, i.e. us the time and place (T&P) strategy. You can alternate languages based on time (e.g. every other day, week or fortnight) or place (e.g. at home and outside the home or different rooms of the home). A word of caution though, this is a tough regime to follow, and you need to be really committed and determined to go through with it.
Monolingual, minority language single parent
If you move to a different language environment with your child, you might find that you are the only person that regularly speaks your language with your little one. You will most likely be working, so the time you spend with your child is restricted to evenings and days off. Should you give up on your language and support your child in learning the local language?
A solid foundation in the home language is the best support for learning an additional one, so the advice is to keep speaking your familiar language with your child. A move is a big change for both adults and children, so changing the language you have communicated in until now is not to be recommended. Should you switch to the majority language, it is highly likely that your child learn to understand but possibly not speak the minority language.
Depending on the age of your child there are different ways you can give your support. A child under the age about seven will pick up the local language fairly quickly once immersed in it in nursery or school and grow up to speak the language accent-free. You can prepare your child by watching children’s programmes and cartoons in the language together before you move. For older children, look for online tuition, some of which you can find for free on educational and governmental websites. The more costly option is to enrol your child in a language course or to arrange private tuition.
Monolingual, majority language single parent
What to do if you become a single parent of a child which has had a bilingual start in life, and you don’t know the minority language your child is still learning? In this scenario you will need some help from others to keep the minority language active in your child’s life. If you still have a good relationship with the other parent’s family, ask them to support you by spending time with your child and helping you with materials such as books, magazines and DVDs.
If this is not a viable option, look for a child minder who can speak the language, possibly an au pair. Try to arrange play dates with other children speaking the language. If your child is a bit older, look for weekend or evening classes in the language. If you are lucky, there might even be an immersion classes available at your local school. What you could also consider, is to learn the language alongside your child – I know, not an easy task to take on, but something you might want to think about if your are truly passionate about retaining the language.
I wish you all the best in your quest to bring up a bilingual child. And if it doesn’t quite go as planned, remember that some additional language skill is still a lot better than none – a receptive knowledge (aka passive skill) is a lot easier to turn into an actively used language than learning a language from scratch.