Raising your children bilingual, or even multilingual is something that many parents dream of, especially if you’re an expat and use various languages at home. We don’t need to look at the advantages of being bilingual as these are quite evident but how should it be done? What do you need to consider, and what challenges will you face? Here we give you an initial guide for you to consider if you’re raising your children bilingual.
Common language Strategies for Bilingual Families
- OHOL – one environment, one language is where the minority language is spoken at home in a community that doesn’t use it (i.e. Speaking English at home where Spanish is spoken in community).
- OPOL – one parent, one language is where both parents have different native languages and speak to the child in both languages, one of which is spoken in the wider community (i.e. dad speaks Spanish and mum speaks English to child, living in Madrid and surrounded by Spanish).
- Language mixing and code-switching – both parents speak two languages and switch between the two. One of these languages would be spoken in the wider community.
- Non-native language use – both parents speak the same language and one parent uses their second language to communicate with their child (i.e. both parents are Spanish and live in Spain yet one speaks English to their child).
- Non-dominant home language without community support – both parents speak their native language to their child, while also forming part of a community that speaks the same language, living in a country that speaks a different language (i.e. both parents speak English to their child and have their own English-speaking community but live in Madrid).
- Double non-dominant home language without community support – both parents speak in their own native languages to the child, which is different to the broader community language (i.e. one French parent, one German parent both speak their native language to the child but living in Madrid, the child hears Spanish outside the home).
How to use the most common methods living in Spain?
OPOL (ONE PARENT, ONE LANGUAGE):
The Spanish parent talks in Spanish and the other parent talks in their native language. Especially useful if the foreign parent is going to spend a lot of time with the child, be it because they work from home or have a flexible working schedule … This can also be the better option if the Spanish parent doesn’t have a good handle of their partner’s native language In this model, the child can be exposed or not to the dialogue between his parents in the minority language (usually parents who choose this system speak Spanish to each other) but what is certain is that they will always be less exposed to the non-community language than if everyone spoke this language at home. For this reason, it’s very important (especially when they start school) to find them activities and places where they can practice the language. If not, it’s likely that the child will develop an active language which is weaker than his passive repertoire and he may even refuse to speak the language temporarily.
OHOL (ONE HOME, ONE LANGUAGE):
To increase the minority language both parents should use it at home to talk to each other and to their child. The concern here usually seems to be what will happen when the child goes to school in a language that we don’t use at home? It’s an understandable concern which disappears and resolves itself soon after. Schooling provides such a strong linguistic stimulus that at the age in which children normally start (3 years old) immersion leads to a rapid development of the language. This option can be especially useful if the minority language isn’t common in the resident country and the possibility of encouraging its development through school, after-school activities, educational material, games is very limited.
How to decide how you will raise your child bilingual
The decision as to who speaks what language is very important towards achieving success. It’s necessary to be realistic and make your decisions based on two types of criteria:
- Practical – how much time does each parent spend with their child, do both parents understand both languages, in what country are you going to live, for how long, what chances are there of educating your child in a school of one of the two language?
- Emotional – in what language does the couple communicate and would they be able to change it, in what language are you comfortable singing in, consoling, disciplining, etc.
How to design your own strategy for raising your child bilingual
- Language that each parent speaks in the home
- Language that the parents speak to each other
- Language that the parents speak to their child in front of third parties such as friends. The system needs to be coherent and consistent which is key for the child’s ability to “separate” and differentiate both.
Raising a bilingual child in Spain
Many Spanish families that take on this project do it for one very powerful reason: they are mixed marriages, from different cultures and languages. In this case, when designing the system of communication, two fundamental aspects need to be taken into account:
- Which is the minority language and what difficulties are we going to encounter when exposing our child to this minority language in Spain.
- How well does the Spanish parent dominate the other language? What is clear in both cases is that it’s recommendable to expose your child as early on as possible to both languages: talk to your baby from birth in both languages.
Some general guidelines for raising your child bilingual
- It’s difficult to give advice which isn’t designed for each and every particularity of each family, but advice can be offered in some common areas: Association between language and emotion: There is evidence to suggest that an association between learning and negative emotions can do irreversible damage. Therefore, as a general guide: don’t change languages when disciplining your child.
- Avoid interrupting your child to correct them (this leads to embarrassment), and try not to overreact by reprimanding them… It’s more effective to rephrase what they’ve said (use the word, saying, or grammatical construction that they’ve just used incorrectly by repeating the sentence correctly showing that we’ve understood what they have said,) or use examples (use the expression or word correctly later in the course of a conversation).
- The more activities that the child enjoys in the said language, the more positive emotions will be established and associated with that language. -Protect children from demands to show off their language skills. These situations have no communication value and unnecessarily put the child on the spot and under pressure which can lead to shyness and fear.
- Don’t force siblings to speak to each other in one or the other language. Communication between them shouldn’t be limited by outside factors
Ways to encourage and strengthen the weaker language
- In general, reading books in the two languages, both pre and post reading age, is a very useful tool. It’s preferable that the Dad reads books in one language and the Mother, or other members of the family, reads in the other language so that the child associates the images and story with vocabulary and grammar in both languages.
- Games can be very stimulating from a certain age (as well as being a nice way to have some fun as a family). Some games require more communication and are more useful for language learning: I spy, Treasure Hunt (write clues on pieces of paper, each clue leads to the next, finally leading to the hidden treasure), Hangman, Scrabble, Charades…
- Parents developing a relationship with the community where the minority language is spoken is important because other couples with children can offer a great and unique opportunity for sharing experiences and for doing things together in that language.
- The more you expose the child to the language that you want them to develop the better: after-school activities, playgroups, schooling…
- Nurturing your child’s relationship with the extended family (grandparents, cousins…) is the perfect opportunity to improve the language. Holidays and visits can be useful when the language learning process has slowed down or gone into retreat. Difficulties experienced in language acquisition or usage may not be due to bilingualism. If there is any abnormality, consult with a specialist.
Speech therapy and bilingualism
- Real speech impairments is not always attributable to bilingualism.
- Bilingualism can influence language development at certain stages, where parents could assume there is some type of impairment when it’s really just a normal part of the process of becoming bilingual.
It’s always best to consult with a specialist if you have any doubts with respect to difficulties that your child may have with language acquisition. If there’s nothing to worry about, the speech therapist will be able to determine this and give you peace of mind. Perhaps it’s just a phase and you only need to wait it out or give a little push to help your child along.
There are very few speech therapists or psychologists that specialise in bilingualism. SINEWS Multilingual Therapy Institute does just that and is based here in Madrid. It also has multi-lingual professionals on hand, including English and Spanish.
Bilingualism is a complex subject and raising our children to speak more than one language requires dedication and planning. If you’re looking for Spanish support for your children, LAE Kids offers Spanish classes for kids and families and can work to advise you in your journey as a parent of bilingual children. For more tips follow our blog.