The most common and effective family language strategies to raise thriving multilingual children. I broke them down nicely so that you can find out which one fits best for your child and family. What else? Why you should consider having a family language strategy to support your child’s multilingualism journey and raise a truly multilingual kid. What to do after you have a strategy? Come on in!
You can’t imagine how many questions I get from parents of bilingual children about family language strategies.
What language do I speak to my child? How often do we speak the minority language? When and where do I speak a language? Who speaks what language?
Since you are reading this, I think you know what they mean very well.
For some, the answer can be crystal clear.
For some others, the answer to this question can be as complex as a maze.
Whichever group you are in, keep reading.
In this blog post, I will focus on the most common family language strategies.
It will help find out which strategy is the best for you to follow. I also answered some specific questions on this in Q&A sessions. Don’t forget to check it out to read some real-life examples!
Learning about the family language strategies and finding out which one works best for you are big steps in your child’s language journey.
Is a language strategy enough?
To answer all your questions about what language(s) to speak to your child, how often, and for how long, you may need to establish a language strategy and plan. Although it may sound complicated, you can certainly do it if you give it some time and work. The most important is to ANSWER THE RIGHT QUESTIONS!
You can answer all these questions through the MULTILINGUAL FAMILY STRATEGY and PLAN WORKSHEET that I prepared for you (Yes, it’s free! Go ahead and download it!)
Okay, let’s get right into the answer:
‘’What language do I speak with my child?’’
Experts usually recommend that:
- Speak your native language
- Speak the language that you feel most comfortable with
‘’Oh, I wish it was that easy!’’
And it is often not. If the answer to this question was always that easy, parents of multilingual children would not be googling it around.
‘’How do I know what language to speak, when, and how often? How can I help my child to become a thriving multilingual?’’
There are some steps to this.
- Set language goals
- Set your family language strategy
- Establish a language plan
- Be consistent
In this blog post, we will dive deep into the family language strategies.
Are you ready?
Why do you need a family language strategy anyway?
Do you really need a family language strategy?
Depending on the needs and the circumstances, you may or may not need a strategy. When you may not need a family language strategy then? I would say, when all the conditions for your child to learn and use the languages are there. What are those conditions?
- Your child does not speak more than two languages (a majority and a minority language)
- All languages your child speaks are supported very well in the environment. So it is not only one person who speaks a minority language with the child but there are other people around as well
But this is not always the case.
These are some of the reasons why you want to have a family language strategy to follow.
You want to:
- Be intentional with your language choice towards your child
- Set some language goals and want to make sure that your child can achieve the language goals
- Be consistent and clear about your language use with your child
- Maximize the language exposure your child gets in each language
- Establish a language plan
- One or more of your child’s languages need more support
What are the family language strategies?
There are a few family language strategies that are the most well known. One can easily write an article about each one of them.
Here you will read about:
- Minority language at home
- One parent, one language
- Two parents, two languages
- Time and Place strategies
I will break them down so that you can decide which one fits you best and go deeper on that strategy later on.
1. Minority language at home (mL@h)
What is minority language at home mL@h language strategy?
Everybody speaks a minority language in the home.
This can be:
- Everybody speaks one minority language
E.g. A Norwegian family lives in Germany. They all speak Norwegian at home.
- Everybody speaks more than one minority languages
A Norwegian family lives in Germany. They all speak Norwegian at home.
E.g. They are also native-level English and they speak Norwegian and English at home. (More on ‘two parents two languages’ later on this post).
Who is mL@h for?
- Migrant parents who are from the same language backgrounds. (e.g. both from Norway)
- Parents who can speak one or more minority languages very well (e.g. English and Norwegian).
No matter what language is spoken in the home, the parents are very confident in their level of speaking these languages.
How effective is it?
A very high chance of your child becoming an active bilingual, especially when both parents speak the same minority language. (97% transmission rate is pretty impressive!).
If you use this strategy, you and your child will be able to communicate at a deeper level, in your native (minority) language. So this strategy is recommended highly by many experts. Of course, use it if you can!
Especially if the minority language is spoken by other people too, such as relatives and friends of the family, this strategy is gold for a child to become a thriving bilingual! (Grosjean, who is a very well-known bilingualism researcher, suggests this too!)
What you need to think about if you go for mL@h
When will the child start learning the majority language and will the child need extra help to catch up with his/her peers?
Parents hear from all the professionals that their children will acquire the majority language (the language of the country you live in) without a problem. But I understand if you are worried about your child’s academic and social life because of the lack of majority language skills. Thus, it is good to think about when and how often your child will have access to the majority language.
For instance, if your child starts preschool around age one or two (like here in Sweden) then, s/he will have a very early access to the majority language. In this case it is safe to say that the child may need even more support in the home language in the future. This is because the majority language becomes stronger and stronger from very early on.
But if your child will not have much contact with the majority language until age 6, then it is good to think about how you can introduce the language of the country you live in. This can be outside of the home through other activities and relationships or by setting a Time and Place strategy (more on Time and Place strategy is later in this post).
Will you speak the minority language only in the home or outside the home as well?
Although the strategy is called ‘minority language at home’ some parents prefer to speak the minority language outside of the home as well.
What will your stance be? Will you switch to the majority language outside or keep speaking your language?
If you never speak your language outside of the home with your child, s/he might feel that the home language is inferior and something to hide from others. This is something to be aware of and also avoid.
Use 2 Parents 2 Languages and Time-Place strategy if there is more than one minority language.
If you both speak two languages very well and want to pass on both of them to your child! What a great idea! Then you may want to integrate other amazing strategies.
Keep reading to learn about them all!
2. One Parent One Language (OPOL)
What is One Parent One Language (OPOL) language strategy?
This can be:
- One parent speaks the minority language and the other parent speaks the majority language
A Hungarian man is married to a Swedish woman and they live in Sweden. In this case, Swedish is the majority language. The father speaks Hungarian and the mother speaks Swedish with the child.
- Two parents speak two different minority languages
A Hungarian man is married to a Swedish woman. They live in the UK. In this case, English is the majority language. The father speaks Hungarian and the mother speaks Swedish to the child.
Who is OPOL for?
- If you are the only person who can speak the minority language in the home.
- If your spouse does not speak your (minority) language. But you may be able to speak the country (majority) language.
How effective is it?
May not be the highest success rate if one parent is the only person that speaks the minority language with the child.
According to the studies done by Annick De Houwer 74% of the children whose parents used this strategy became bilinguals.
But whether the child will learn and maintain the minority language or not does not only depend on the parents. Other things that may increase or decrease the chances are: Does the child hear the language from other people too? How much time does the child spend with the parents? How parents support the child’s language development in general?
What you need to think about if you go for OPOL
Are you the only person around who speaks the minority language with your child?
Many parents who moved to another country for family reunion say that they are the only person who speaks the minority language to their child. When there is no one around as a source of this language but you, it is harder for your child to become bilingual.
If this is the case, your child may want to speak the majority (country) language with you because it is easier. This happens a lot especially if the children do not have a very stable language foundation from the beginning.
How to support your child’s language if you are the only parent who speaks that language with your child?
What language are you going to speak with your child when all the family is together?
Will you keep speaking the same language with your child when other family members (even though these other members do not understand your language)? Or, are you going to switch to the majority language? Important to think about it.
There is no right or wrong!
What will you speak outside of the home?
Decide if you will keep speaking the minority language outside of the home as well with your child. Providing your child with a lot of language input is not limited inside the home.
What to do when there are other people around?
Will you speak your minority language or switch to the majority language with your child next to other people? You may want to be polite and speak the majority language that everyone understands with your child. But each time you speak the majority language, your child will have less and less input and opportunities in your (minority) language.
Think about if your child will feel like the minority language is something to hide from others or something to be proud of. Parents’ attitudes are important determinants of how children perceive the languages too.
Feeling safe and well fit in the society is also important for you and your child. Thus, planning the language input and opportunities that your child needs can help you a lot!
3. Two parents two languages
What is Two Parents Two Languages (2P2L) language strategy?
Both parents speak two languages with the child.
- Both parents speak the same minority language and the majority language or
- Two different minority languages and the majority language
Who is 2P2L for?
- Parents who are bilinguals themselves and who want to pass on both languages to their child.
Let’ say you and your partner live in Belgium and you both grew up as bilingual Dutch and French speakers. You both speak these two languages almost in equal amounts with your child.
- Parents who speak both the majority and minority language very well
You and your partner were born in Greece but you live in Germany and you both speak German very well.
Alternatively, one or both of you were born in Germany but a Greek-German speaking bilingual since your parents are from Greece. So you can speak both languages with your child.
How effective is it?
Annick De Houwer’s large-scale study shows that the success rate is just a little higher than OPOL. But this strategy allows for more room to work on the languages that the parents want to pass on to their children. Parents who have 2P2L strategy have more flexibility to choose what subject they want to discuss in different languages. They can also decide how often they want to speak these languages depending on the child’s needs. (Rita Rosenback has a very nice article about the benefits of this strategy too.)
What you need to think about if you go for 2P2L
When will you be using the languages? What subjects will you discuss in these languages? What kind of other resources that your child has, such as books and movies? Are there other people around to speak these languages with (friends, relatives)?
All these questions are important to ask especially if you want to increase the amount of input in the minority language.
If your child does not have much input and opportunities in the minority language, it is likely that the language will suffer and the child will favor the majority language more and more.
Parents can think about these questions and focus on giving as much input and opportunities to the child in the minority language in varying subjects.
Good to combine with TIME – PLACE based strategy!
Both parents speak the languages in question very well and it can be confusing to know which languages to speak all the time. To avoid confusion and opt for consistency, Time and Place strategy is a great solution. How? Read on!
4. Time and Place
What is Time and Place language strategy?
Using the languages according to a time or place schedule.
Time schedule can be weekends vs. weekdays, every other week, days vs. evenings.
Place settings can be different rooms for different languages, inside vs. outside the home.
Who is the T&P language strategy for?
- Parent(s) who are proficient in the two (or more) languages and want to teach their child these languages.
- Single parents who want to teach their child two (or more) languages.
- Parents who introduce another language to the child.
- Parents who want to speak another language with their child (whether the parent is very fluent in that language or not)
How effective is it?
The effectiveness of this strategy depends on many factors, such as how proficient is the parent in the language, how much the child hears the language whether the parent is the only source of language or the child receives language input from other people too.
As Rita Rosenback suggests, this strategy is not very well-studied and it does not naturally come to the families since it requires some thinking and planning.
What you need to think about if you go for Time and Place strategy?
Setting specific language goals is very important to use this strategy so the parent schedules how much the child hears and uses a language.
This strategy calls for some planning. So, for this strategy to be a successful one you need to have a plan in mind.
What are the language goals of your child? What are the language opportunities of your child outside of the home? These two are the main things you need to consider to set this strategy.
You can establish a plan by answering a few questions about your child’s and family’s current situation. Find out how to start making your child’s language plan here!
Parents’ language proficiencies or levels are important factors.
You may be a very proficient or native speaker of the languages you speak. But you may also be so-so in a language.
I know that some parents want to support their child in the majority language too. But they may also not be very good at the majority language.
Although some experts recommend that parents speak their native languages to their children (or their language) Time and Place strategy is a good way of introducing a language other than your best language to your child.
In this case, you can still plan to use that language with your child at certain times and places. Your child’s language levels will likely to depend on your proficiency level in combination with your child’s exposure to the language from other sources.
When it is time to switch languages… How to do it for small children?
Babies and toddlers have a different way of making sense of time. So, using our adult words such as tomorrow, in the evening, in five minutes will make no sense for them.
To make more sense, you can use different ways of transitioning to the other language if you are using ‘time’ as a determinant of when to speak a language. For example, if you want to speak a language every evening with your child, you can make this transition clearer by creating a simple routine. This routine can be as simple as singing a song or playing a game in that language. In this way, your child will know that it is time to hear and speak that language. Brilliant, isn’t it?
Is a family language strategy enough? Where to go from here?
A family language strategy is the backbone of a language plan. But, it does not start or finish here.
Some of the other steps are:
- Setting your child’s language goals,
- Thinking about how much exposure and interaction opportunities your child needs in each language to reach these goals, (this is something you can do roughly)
- Establishing a plan to provide these input and opportunities.
Through working on these steps, you will have a clearer picture of how much input and opportunities your child currently has and needs.
Your family strategy and plan do not have to be set on stone. It is rather dynamic. With changing life circumstances and language abilities, it should adapt to your child’s needs.
For how long should you stick with your family strategy?
A family strategy is for your child and family. It should always be so.
When it is not working anymore, there is no need to try to stick with it forever just because you made a decision once.
When you can consider revising your family strategy?
- Moving to another country or an area where the majority language is different
- Changes in the family structure (divorce, additions to the family, loss, etc.)
- If the strategy is not helping your child to maintain the minority language
- If the current strategy is not enough to achieve your child’s language goals
- Schooling needs change
- Your child grows up and expresses his/her needs for a different strategy
When setting or revising a strategy, keep in mind that ‘need’ is a very important factor for children to learn and maintain their languages. Grosjean suggests that children need a communicative need to acquire a language. That’s why it is always good to think about how you can create these communicative needs for your kiddo.
I hope you find this article super helpful!
Keep reading to learn more from me:
What else can you do to learn more from me?
join LingoBalance Families on Facebook to ask, learn, and share your experience!
Feel free to share this article with your loved ones! 🙂
Buket Oztekin has an M.A. in speech and language therapy and a Ph.D. in linguistics. She works with bilingual children and investigates their language development. She coaches parents of bilingual children and connects them with other parents to spread knowledge and experience. Her goal with creating LingoBalance is to turn what the research says into bitesize information and activities for parents to use with their kiddos anytime, anywhere.