As the saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat, and so there are a multitude of strategies for raising bilingual children. Among all these choices, one thing remains constant — a children’s love for predictability.
Have you ever noticed how poorly many children handle change and how they thrive when on familiar turf? When you’ve read that same story every night for two months, you’ll know what I mean. Certainly, kids learn languages under the most chaotic conditions — just look at the average dinner table scene — but some predictability within the chaos spells safety and security, which in turn promotes learning.
Most multilingual families have discovered that a fixed language system in the home greatly reduces the tendency for children to mix the languages — or worse, the flat-out refusal to speak the second language. One parent expressed it perfectly; “I’ve noticed that when Anna gets overwhelmed by something, she just tunes out. I guess that it is the toddler safety mechanism against information overload.” Kees van der Laan continued, “But I really don’t want her to tune out my Dutch, so my wife and I agreed on a language combination that we can both live by, while keeping it simple for Anna. I feel that the consistency is ultimately more important than which kind of system we use.” In choosing your system, you’ll absolutely need to consider what will work best for your family, but here are the two most popular methods:
1) One Person, One Language (OPOL) is the most common family language system in use. For instance, Kees speaks his native Dutch, while his wife speaks English. Each parent or caregiver consistently speaks only one language to the child. Sometimes OPOL requires extra “language supplements,” such as playgroups, visits from family, a trip to the country, or a native speaking nanny or au-pair. It helps tremendously for your child to hear that his parent isn’t the only one who speaks this language. Kids are savvy little creatures who are quite capable of reasoning that they don’t really need to know a language if it is only spoken by one other person.
2) A second option, slightly less common but tremendously successful is Minority Language at Home (ML@H). It simply means that everyone speaks the minority language at home, even if this language is not the native language of both parents. It is probably the most reliable method for raising truly native speaking children since it ensures consistent interaction from birth until the child leaves home.
However, the ML@H parent has to be able to quell doubts and stay the course unwaveringly. When your child isn’t speaking the community language on the same level as his or her monolingual peers (generally the ML@H child doesn’t reach parity with them until around 5 years of age), it’s difficult not to worry. The McColloughs in Germany remember “We were watching other children jabbering away in complete German sentences, while Patrick seemed incapable of getting out two or three connected words.” Within months after starting preschool, however, he had transformed completely. “Now he can’t stop talking in either language.” Even when you know that your child is going to catch up, it can be daunting to watch him struggle. Some parents fear that he will never learn the primary language, even though this really only occurs when children are isolated from the primary language within a minority speaking community.
3) Frankly, any pattern that works for your family and provides enough interaction in the second language is fine. Examples of such variations are: (1) one language is spoken every day, the other on extended vacations to another country; (2) one language is spoken in a certain location (e.g. if the children attend an immersion program), the other at home.
As you can see, the raising of multilingual children is a flexible and highly personal process, so just adapt the basic language systems to something that fits your lifestyle. Even the most highly-trained athlete couldn’t finish a marathon in ill-fitting shoes, and all your training won’t help if you aren’t settled comfortably for the long haul. Remember, it isn’t all on you; you can find an immersion program, call upon grandparents, organize playgroups and schedule frequent visits to your country — good for junior’s language, but just as helpful and fun for you.