Bilingual parenting is one of the hardest, but most interesting projects I have taken on in my life. It is like you’re molding and manipulating your child’s brain, which is pretty cool, but scary at the same time.
Since I was 16 years old, I have been bilingual in both English and Spanish. Love and life brought me to Chile, and now I live a bilingual life, complete with a career in international logistics. Now, having Amanda has made me even more concerned about language development.
I receive many questions from parents about what is the best way to go about raising a child from birth with more than one language spoken in the house. To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe there is one best way to raise a bilingual child. Every household and every child has a different situation. That being said, it is important to have a jumping off point. I hope that these bilingual parenting strategies will help give you the motivation and inspiration to start your family’s journey.
3 Essential Bilingual Parenting Strategies
1. One Person, One Language (OPOL)
The OPOL strategy is just as it sounds. One person in the house speaks only one language to the child. Preferably, the language chosen would be the person’s native language. So far, this is the strategy that Felipe and I have chosen to employ with Amanda since she was born. I speak to her in English and Felipe speaks to her in Spanish.
There are two reasons that it is preferable that the language chosen be native to the speaker:
- Pronunciation – Native speakers will have better pronunciation. This will help to ensure that your child does not develop an “accent” in the target language.
- Grammar – While you may be fluent, grammar and sentence structure typically comes more naturally to native speakers. Even after 6 years of living in a Spanish speaking country, I still find myself double checking my grammar, and I still make minor errors from time to time. It is beneficial to Amanda that Felipe speaks to her with the correct Spanish structure.
Now, this isn’t to say that it is inherent that the language that you speak to the child be native. If you and your partner both are bilingual and you have the same native language (i.e. Both speak English natively, and second language is Spanish) you can choose who will speak the secondary language to the child. They will still learn, but they may have an accent. You may also need to work implementing additional grammatical resources when the time is right.
2. Minority Language at Home (MLAH)
The MLAH strategy is also just as it sounds. While outside the home, you speak the majority language only. This is done as a family no matter your native language. However, as soon as you arrive home, as a family, you all transition into speaking the minority language.
What is a majority/minority language?
When you are raising a bilingual or multilingual child, it is essential to understand that there will always be a majority and a minority language.
The majority language is the language that is commonly spoken in public, at school, daycare, or wherever you are outside the home.
The minority language is whatever target language you have chosen outside of the majority language. In our case, English is our minority language, since Chile is a Spanish-speaking nation.
MLAH is a strategy that many immigrants use naturally. Since their native language becomes the minority language, it feels more comfortable to speak that at home rather than bringing the majority language into their home-life.
I see a lot of use and success with this strategy, though it can backfire if not implemented correctly. The tactic must be used by the family as a whole, and therefore each member should have a basic handling of both the majority and minority language. You don’t want to exclude a family member from conversations when you’re out and about just because they don’t speak the majority language or vice versa!
For us, I have considered at some point transitioning to this model, though it won’t be for a few years. Amanda now goes to a 100% Spanish daycare and she is just starting to say some words. However, her words, as few and far between as they may be, are coming out more on the Spanish side. I don’t mind this, I figured that would be the case. But, it may be pertinent to switch our method in order to give her more English exposure at some point.
3. Scheduled Practice
Scheduled practice is a bilingual parenting strategy that is more common, at least in my experience, as children become older. It relies upon a schedule in order to ensure that children have enough exposure to the target languages.
An example would be: Both parents speak English natively, but one speaks Spanish and the other French, as a secondary language. Naturally, both parents feel it is important to share their knowledge of language with their baby! So, rather than opting for OPOL, they decide that during dinnertime, they will only speak French. Or, whenever grandma is over, they will speak Spanish. As children get older, I have seen families switch to a different language every other week, or have weekdays be one language, while the weekend is another.
While this strategy is typically implemented with older children, I know some people who utilize this bilingual parenting strategy from birth! With scheduled practice, dedication from the parents and children is important. While it is a bit more complicated to implement, it can be done. I think the strategy is especially useful for multilingual parents that want to share more than one of their spoken languages with their child.
While requiring more planning, this is also the strategy with the most flexibility, and it offers more opportunities to introduce more than two languages to a child. I personally have thought that as Amanda grows, implementing this strategy would be a great idea! I love the idea of learning a new language together as a family, and having a set time to practice speaking would be beneficial for all three of us.
An important thing to remember when choosing a strategy for your family:
Nothing is set in stone.
Your family is dynamic and different from everyone else’s. It is a unique entity that may not mold well to these bilingual parenting strategies. That is not to say that your journey must end here! There are many methods that parents use to teach languages to their children.
My goal with this article is simply to provide you with the information and inspiration required to prepare your own bilingual parenting strategy that works best for you.
Let me know if you have tried one of these strategies! How has it worked out for you? Are you thinking of transitioning? Or, have you done something different altogether?
Share your story in our comments below!
Also, if you have a story to share, why not consider writing a guest blog for us?
Caitlin is the managing director of Snuggleosophy and the mother of 1-1/2 year old Amanda. She has lived as an expat in Santiago, Chile for the past 7 years and speaks English and Spanish fluently. She loves to promote reading for children starting from birth as well as multilingual and multicultural parenting. For her day job, she is a pricing and transportation analyst for international freight.