Tag: Parents

NALDIC – Multilingual Language Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Please follow the link to find out more about this research…

Are you a #multilingual family in the UK or Ireland? How is the #lockdown affecting your children’s use of English and their other language(s)?

Take part in this collaborative research project to help us learn. Includes opportunity to enter a prize draw https://t.co/LaV0YbLMoX

— naldic (@EAL_naldic) April 20, 2020

Resources to support learning at home

These resources are for families to use at home. One file is for nursery/primary age, with some links relevant for babies/toddlers. Another is for secondary age. The third came from Peterhead ASL team who were happy for it to be shared. These resources will be helpful for bilingual families, but most will helpful for all families.

There are a range of activities with some links to translated information and resources that can help families.

Aberdeenshire EAL – Resources to support learning while at home – Primary & Nursery

Aberdeenshire EAL – Resources to support learning while at home – Secondary

ASL Ideas (002) from Peterhead ASL


Keeping home languages alive key to English success for newcomer kids


A language workshop for parents in northeast Calgary is highlighting the many benefits of keeping home languages alive and encouraging parents to pass on their spoken language to their kids.

The workshop was organized by the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Public Library’s Saddletowne branch.

“The program came out of research into keeping the home language alive and the importance of it,” said Melanie Wong, a CBE strategist whose focus is English-language learners.

Wong says research shows maintaining first languages improves children’s self-esteem and sense of cultural identity while helping kids succeed in the English school system.

“Sometimes English is the priority because they want to integrate into society, but what we’re finding is that first language is still key,” Wong said.

The CBE’s Melanie Wong says evidence shows that kids who learn their home language as well as English are more successful in school, especially when it comes to excelling in English. She encourages parents to read, write, sing and even joke at home in their own language. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“It’s really important because we do notice that the academic gains are better at school when they do have that first language,” said Wong, adding kids who keep up their first language see improved literacy and success in English.

But Wong says there’s also a stigma for some kids around learning and speaking their home language.

Many in the English school system can feel embarrassed to speak their first language once they learn English.

“Once we try to encourage them to speak our home language but they try to avoid it because of the accent issue,” said parent Getu Admasu, who moved to Calgary from Ethiopia in 2001.

Parents like Getu Admasu, who came to Calgary from Ethiopia, say it’s often a challenge to get their kids to learn their home language. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“If mom and dad speak their own language at home, the kids will learn. But if we are switching to English, there is no point,” said Admasu.

Admasu says he uses posters in the house with words and phrases in the two languages beside each other, setting his kids a daily target of words to learn to encourage them.

Many parents want their kids to learn their first language to communicate with friends and relatives and maintain strong ties to their culture.

“I’m very interested to keep my home language alive with my kid,” said Chhabi Raval.

Many parents, like Chhabi Raval, want their kids to learn their language in addition to English to keep them connected to their culture, traditions and family. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“I want to know how I continue with it because for me it is very important for him to know what language I speak and his grandparents speak. I value it,” said Raval.

“It is very much a challenge. They are small right now so they don’t know but it is something we should give them,” said Raval, who says she doesn’t want her children to miss out.

The workshop included time for parents to play with their kids, encouraging them to use their home language, using books and playing with toys.

The workshop was the first of its kind in Calgary. The CBE says it’s looking at more opportunities at other libraries in the future.

A Bilingual Brain Solves Problems Faster


Check inside the link for video.

Language allows us to share thoughts and feelings with somebody else. It’s our cultural glue. Otherwise, we’d live in a world of babel. But there’s much more to language, including elements that affect the structure and functioning of the brain.

While the first words spoken may have been 250,000 years ago, now more than half of the people around the world – estimates vary from 60 to 75 percent – speak at least two languages.

Eighty percent of primary and secondary students in 24 European countries are learning a foreign language, usually English. Across the United States the number is closer to 20 percent, but this varies by state. In New Jersey, 51 percent of students have a second language course included as part of the school day.

Learning those languages impacts our noggins. Brain scans show that people who speak more than one language have more gray matter in their anterior cingulate cortex, the area linked to everything from learning to social behavior to resolving conflicts.

A leading neuropsychologist says it’s like a muscle – using it makes it bigger and more flexible. There’s a sort of competition that goes on in the brains of people who speak multiple languages. Since it’s possible to use either language at any moment, their brains have developed ways to regulate which language is spoken. The brain’s executive functions, a regulatory system that includes inhibition, allow a person to focus, and “pause” the language not being used.

Research shows this mechanism has a lot of other benefits. People who speak more than one language are better at switching between two tasks. For example, bilinguals can switch from categorizing objects by color to sorting them by shape more rapidly than monolingual people.

Why is this? Their brains regularly inhibit languages and employ that same regulation to “inhibit” tasks. It doesn’t end there. People who speak more than one language also have the ability to make more rational decisions. When faced with a choice, the inhibition center quiets intuitions and emotions.

This means that bilingual people might be better employees in jobs requiring rational planning, managing complexity and problem solvingOther implications: bilingual children are better at adjusting to environmental changes, and bilingual seniors can experience less cognitive decline. There are even indications that speaking more than one language can lead to faster stroke recovery.

Is picking up a second language easy?  Not always, especially as an adult. But the brain-benefits are awfully robust, not to mention it’s useful knowing the difference between embarazada and embarrassed.

Be informed. Not influenced.
News moves fast!
Sign up for our free email newsletter and never miss a thing.

How you will start teaching your child to read


Code switching, what to do, when should I worry?

Code switching, what to do, when should I worry?


At our Free Online Meeting on Multilingualism we talked about code switching or code mixingwhat to do if our children keep on mixing their languages, when it is a good sign and when we should worry (9 May 2018)

First of all, the term code switching is widely used as an umbrella term for using different languages in the same sentence, alternating them to some extent. It is not to be confused with borrowing, where a language is integrated into the other:

Ça m’étonnerait qu’on ait code-switché autant que ça! (I can’t believe we code-switched as often as that!)

Code switching can involve a word, a phrase or a sentence and there is always a base language. In these examples, the base language is French with integrations in English.

Vas chercher Marc and bribe him avec un chocolat chaud with cream on top

(Go fetch Marc and bribe him with a hot chocolate with cream on top)

Des wild guys à cheval

(Some wild guys on horseback) (Grosjean 1982)


“Code switching is not a haphazard behaviour due to some form of semilingualism but it is a well-goverend process used as a communicative stratagem to convey linguistic and social information”.  (Grosjean 2013)


The reasons for code-switching are many: using the right word or expression, filling a linguistic need, marking group identity, excluding or including someone, raising our status etc.


Code-mixing, on the other hand, is a stage of bilingual language acquisition. Bilingual children naturally mix their languages. They use both languages in a single sentence. It is not a sign that the child is not learning the languages properly, on the contrary, it is a sign that the child is acquiring those languages in a quite systematic way! With mixing the languages, the child proves to naturally find interchangeable elements of the sentence.

I like to compare this code-mixing to playing with lego. Imagine you have a box full of lego in different colours. Each colour stays for another language you are acquiring. If the child wants to build a house, she can choose to build a very colourful house, or build a house with one colour only. The colourful house is the one that stays for a code-mixing conversation and the one colour house for a conversation in one language only.

Many parents fear that by mixing the languages our children will never really learn to speak one of the languages correctly, but this usually is not true.


Lanza (2004) identifies 5 parental discourse strategies:


  • Minimal Grasp strategy: when the parent indicates the lack of understanding of the child’s mixed utterance and asks what did you say?

– I personally  wouldn’t advise to use this strategy because our children usually would only use languages they know we understand when talking with us, or if they use another language it is because they really don’t know the words in our languages! Pretending not to understand our children is interpreted as not being honest! I know this first hand as the one who was asked this question by people I knew were just being difficult and wanting me to “stick to only one language” and I always felt being silenced. Denying that we understand what our child is saying can stop the communication, affect the relationship – if one constantly applies this strategy !
I would also never advise teachers to use this strategy, as it can lead to complete silence. It builds a wall instead of a bridge, and when communicating with each other, we want to build bridges…


  • Expressed Guess strategy: the parent reformulates the child’s mixed utterance by way of a guess and adds a question like Is that what you mean? – This is a more effective strategy as it involves active hearing and true commitment to understand what the child is saying.

It also gives the child the opportunity to find other words, paraphrase what he/she wants to say, and keeps the conversation flowing.


  • Repetition: the parent reformulates the child’s mixed utterance in the target language without code-mixing. – With this strategy which is also known as modeling, the parents formulates the sentence in a grammatically correct way. The child hears how it should sound, but is not asked to repeat the sentence or give an opinion about the content. We can do this usually when we are sure about what the child wanted to say. Similar to 3, this strategy shows that the parent is actively listening, engaged in the conversation and interested in mutual understanding.


  • Move on: the parent continues the interaction without “flagging” the child’s mixing in any way. – This kind of reaction should not be our normal reaction, especially not with young children who are still acquiring the languages. The only time I would advise using it is when more people are involved in the conversation and we either don’t want to alienate the child – it can be embarrassing and humiliating if someone interferes with our speech… – or we don’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation. Strategies 1-3 are all interrupting the flow and if done repeatedly can affect the conversation.



  • Code-Switching: the parent switches into the language which the child has introduced by means of code-mixing. – This might sound like an unexpected strategy, because we are supposed to help our children stick to one language, right, but it actually is the most multilingual reaction. As multilinguals we always have the whole repertoire of words, nuances to our disposal and especially in multilingual settings, e.g. when we talk with others who share our languages, we feel like we can relax and let language just flow. Just imagine that you have a set of coloured crayons and are asked, or have the opportunity, to draw a flower. You would most probably try to use as many colours as you like. If now someone would ask you to only use green, you may feel limited in your drawing, you might only draw the stem of a flower and its leaves, but you would miss the freedom to draw colourful petals…



We can use a mix of all these strategies (except the first one for the reasons I mentioned before) and see which one works best for us, our child, our family, and the situation we are in.


There are always situations where we feel insecure about what to do and it is ok to seek for help whenever we feel this way. Parents always should trust their gut: we know our children best and when there is anything that feels just “not right”, it is our responsibility to take action for the sake of our child. This applies to  their overall wellbeing.


At what point should we worry when our child mixes the languages?


There are a few situations when we should observe our child’s code mixing a bit closer.


  • If our child is for example using the syntax structure of language B while speaking in language A consistently, we should start modeling the right grammatical structure andask if this is what they wanted to say.

I know by experience that this kind of code mixing can be discouraging, but it could be only a phase. Try to find out what the reasons can be for such a mixing:

Our children can produce this kind of sentences when they are tired, or when they just switched from talking in the other language (B) and are now transitioning to talk in language A. If this phenomenon is only temporary, we shouldn’t worry too much, but if it pertains and our child seems not to be able to form one grammatically correct sentence anymore, then we should seek for help.

  • If our child struggles with forming a sentence in one language only and this in monolingual settings, for example at school: try to find out if the child only would need a bit more time to find the right words, and help with finding the right word order. For many bilingual children, timepatience, the right modeling and encouragement is all what they need.

I would only worry if I see that the child can’t form a sentence – even an easier form of it – in the two (or more) languages correctly when talking in that language only, in a monolingual setting; even not if given time.

In fact, if this happens, communication can become almost impossible as the meaning is difficult to be understood, even by multilinguals who code-switch between the same languages!

When this happens with a child that used to talk in a comprehensive way before, we should seek for help. A Language Consultant or a Speech Pathologist who is fluent in all languages involved would be ideal.


My first advice is always to assess the situation. What makes the child struggle to form a grammatically correct sentence? It depends on the child’s age and stage of bilingual or multilingual language acquisition, the situation (formal, non formal, at school, with people the child knows or not…), the topic (if it is a familiar topic or not), and if the child is tired or stressed for any reason.

Something that always helps in these situations is to give the child the time he/she needs to recollect the thoughts and listen. Encouraging the child to talk can be done by just being silent. You can also bridge between the languages the child knows. There are several techniques that have proven to be effective. What surely never helps is to make the child feel your anxiety or put any kind of pressure into the difficult conversation: the more anxious the child becomes the more this situation becomes a problem.

What I found helped in a similar situation was singing, or playing music in the backgrouns. With the help of music, different intonations and a topic that is dear to the child, the situation is more relaxed and the child (and the adult!) feels more comfortable.


If you have any question about this topic or if you would like to discuss a personal issue, please don’t hesitate to contact me at info@UtesInternationalLounge.com. – I’m only a mail away 😉


François Grosjean, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

François Grosjean and Ping Li, The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism, Wiley Blackwell, 2013.

Elizabeth Lanza, Language Mixing in Infant Bilingualism: A Sociolinguistic Perspective, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Family Language Strategy


Family Language Strategy


International families have a great opportunity to learn several languages. Many children learn multiple languages in the most natural way. But what if situations change, languages are not used and supported in the new environment?

Finding the right language strategy for our family is not always easy because needs and preferences change, and although we know that consistency is the key we fear that our attempt to bring up our children as balanced bilinguals will fail because we (have to) change strategy along the way.


The most common strategy is One Person One Language (OPOL) and it is used by families where parents speak two different languages.

The term of OPOL was first introduced by the french linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902. In Observations sur le langage des enfants (Observations on Children’s Language), he introduced the idea of une personneune  langue. Literally translated from the French as one person, one language. (cfr. About OPOL)

Parents who follow this strategy will talk only one language to their child which can help to prevent confusion and code-mixing.

In linguistic circles the term of OPOL is very common and is frequently used since the 1980s as a way to describe a child being brought up as a simultaneous bilingual. In these studies we find the word parentalternate with person (cfr. B. Bain and A. Yu, Cognitive consequences of raising children bilingually: One parent, one language, Canadian Journal of Psychology, vol.34(4), Dec. 1980, 304-313). This leads to confusion as the use of parent instead of person implies that the parents are the only linguistic role models for a child.

In my opinion, Grammont’s label one person one language is much more appropriate in our society. It includes also bilingual mum-mum or dad-dad families and families where one parent is absent and another person takes the caregiver-role. Moreover, it does include also other persons in our children’s life like siblings, extended family, daycarers, nannys, babysitters  etc..

This method can be very successful because it comes more natural to parents and caregivers. For the child it is a great method to immerse in both language one person at a time. The only downside can be if the child is unequally exposed to both languages. If this is the case, parents and caregivers must find a way to reinforce the habit of using the language that is more disadvantaged. This is also the case when children start attending school in another language.



Another strategy is Minority Language at Home (ML@H), which consists in speaking one or more minority languages at home. Minority languages are those languages that are not community languages. For example, if a Polish family lives in Germany, their family language would be Polish, a minority language in that country. If both parents have minority languages – for example English and French – , and they adopt OPOL, their children will become simultaneous bilinguals in both minority languages (if they keep talking them) and sequential bilinguals as they will acquire or learn the community language outside the house or family, at daycare, school etc.

The advantages for the ML@H are that it is quite clear who speaks which language to whom in the family and there is usually no need for translation – unless one of the parents doesn’t understand the language of his partner.
Families who adopt this strategy may observe that their children need more time to catch up with their peers who talk the majority language (i.e. the language of their community). When children are submersed into the other language from an early stage on, they usually adapt quickly and learn the language at a healthy rate. If the parents talk the community language in the presence of their children (at home and outside home), their children might prefer the community language at some point. The reason for this is because its use is more economical for them: they know their parents understand what they’re saying anyways and they need the community language to interact with peers.

ML@H families usually speak their family language independently of where they are. Some children will prefer their parents speak the community language outside the home because of their need not to be different and I personally would respect this and discuss it with the child. The reason a child refuses to talk the family language in public can have apparent reasons – peer pressure or the need to belong – but reasons can also be more serious. Maybe the child has been teased when speaking it or feels that the language is tainted with negative prejudice.

For every family opting for the ML@H strategy, it is advisable to find a language community where their children will need to speak this language also later on, and not limit it to the home environment only.



With the Time and Place (T&P) approach the focus is set on an agreed schedule. All members will decide to speak different languages with their child depending either on the Time or the Place (or both!).

Families can agree on a time when one language is used during the day and another during the evening (for example, talking German at breakfast and Italian at dinner), they can also opt to split different languages between weekdays and weekends (German during the week, Italian during weekends) or speak different languages during alternating weeks or months. Using time as a sole determining factor for changing language is not advisable for families with young children or busy households. Children who don’t yet understand time will easily feel confused when parents switch languages without apparent and, for them, clear reason and need.

Families can also choose place as separating factor, for example if they use one language at home and one outside home or determine particular rooms for using one language or the other. – The Time and Place variant is used in immersion schools, when parents don’t speak the school language at home.

The Time and Place strategy can also be used to introduce another language later on in a childs’ life.



The 2 Parents 2 Languages (2P2L) strategy is usually adopted by bilingual parents. It is a natural way to use more than one language in bilingual communities and in families with many different levels of bilingualism. If done in a non-organised way, this system can lead to a mixed-use of language (the famous “Spanglish” in North America for example).

Annick de Houwer’s studies on families with bilingual parents show that if they both parents talk their languages with their children, 79% of these children will become bilingual which is a slightly higher result compared to OPOL families (74%) (Bilingual First Language Acquisition). – The 2P2L strategy is actually a variant of OPOL for bilingual parents.

The great advantage of this system is that different matters can be discussed in different languages. Books, films, activities, experiences can be discussed in the respective language.

If languages are used in very specific contexts only, children may develop a situational vocabulary: “if the caregiver addresses the child only to make her eat, sleep or pick up her toys, in the context of kitchen, a bedroom, or a bathroom, the vocabulary of the child will be limited and the majority language will overshadow the minority language”. (The Multilingual Mind, issues discussed by, for, and about People Living with Many Languages, ed. by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Praeger, London, 2003, p.116)


Whatever bilingual strategy we choose for our family situation, everyone involved (parents, caregivers, teachers, extended family etc.) should always make sure to agree on the expectations and on the time and energy we can put into this. Although speaking two or more languages to a toddler seems very feasable, keeping our children bilingual when they start going to school requires a short term and a long term plan. Of course children grow up learning more than one language all over the world without their parents having followed any kind of plans. – I am one of those children and I grew up perfectly multilingual. But I also know that it requires consistency and that there are periods in our life where one language is more dominant than the other and there are constant ups and downs.

Many parents want their children to be balanced bilinguals, i.e. that they acquire the same fluency and proficiency in at least some of the languages they learn. But life changes constantly and so do our needs to use the languages we acquire and learn along the way.


The two best ways to maintain a language during this long journey is to:

  • Have a need to speak the language

If we don’t have a need to talk a language, to communicate in this language with someone on a regular basis, our competence in this language will decrease. We will still be passively competent and we can reactivate our language if needed, but this language will probably become dormant.


  • Keep it interesting

If we don’t talk a language on a regular basis but want to keep it active to some extent, we need to find a way to keep it interesting, even if this means to “only” read it, listen to it or watch films in that language.


If we don’t enjoy speaking a language and we don’t have a need to do so, it will become secondary. For bilinguals who speak more than 2 languages it will happen naturally that one language becomes less important from time to time, but this is like with everything else in life. The unique advantage of fostering these languages is that whenever we need them, they are there. It might require some effort to reactivate them but we surely won’t have to relearn them from scratch.



I regularly hold workshops on Parenting the Bilingual Child (0-6yo & 6-18 yo) where I help parents set up their very personal family language plan.

If you would be interested in finding out which strategies would best work for your family, you can also contact me directly at info@UtesInternationalLounge.com

or schedule a free consultation via the contact form.


Frequently asked questions

The information below first appeared in the pamphlet ‘Raising Bilingual Children’ written by Antonella Sorace and Bob Ladd in May 2004 and was published by ‘The Linguistic Society of America’. It has been reproduced here in its entirety with the Society’s permission.

For further details you can email the ‘The Linguistic Society of America’ on lsa@lsadc.org or visit their website at http://www.lsadc.org.

Sorace, A. and Ladd, D.R. 2004. Raising bilingual children. Series: Frequently Asked Questions, Linguistic Society of America.

Why want bilingual children?

There are many reasons, but the two most common are:

      • The parents speak different languages (say, an American woman and a Turkish man).
      • The parents speak the same language, but live in a community where most people speak something else (say, a Korean couple living in the UK).

In the first case, both the mother and father may want to be able to use their own language when talking to their children. This is the bilingual home situation. In the second, the parents may want to be able to use their own language at home even though their children also need to function in the world outside the front door. This is the bilingual setting situation. Our own situation is an Italian/English bilingual home in an English-speaking setting, and some of what we say here is based directly on our experience bringing up bilingual children.

Don’t children get confused when they hear two languages spoken around them?

The short answer is no. Children are incredibly sensitive to the different ways people speak. Even when they only hear one language, they learn very quickly about differences between the way men and women talk, the difference between polite and impolite ways of talking, and so on. For children, the bilingual situation is just a matter of another difference between people!

Fifty years ago educators throughout North America used to tell immigrant parents that it was better for their children’s schooling if they spoke English at home. Some researchers thought that early exposure to two languages put children at a disadvantage. Newer research tells us that this is not so, and there may be advantages to being bilingual (in addition to knowing more than one language), such as more flexible thinking. The disadvantages that earlier research found were generally economic disadvantages, linked to the hardships of immigrants’ lives.

Bilingual development sometimes results in slightly slower language development than for some monolingual children. Our older child was still saying things like ‘Where you are?’ instead of ‘Where are you?’ in English at four and a half. This is a normal developmental stage for monolingual English children, but they usually figure out that they have to say ‘Where are you?’ by the time they’re three or four. Our older child just took a little longer.

Don’t bilingual children ever mix their languages up?

Like adult bilinguals, bilingual children often use words from one language when speaking the other. (This is called code-switching.) But this doesn’t mean they are confused about which language they are speaking. In our Italian-English bilingual home, a lot of our food vocabulary is Italian, and we use this even when we’re speaking English (and when English words are available). So we’ll talk about pollo instead of chicken and sugo instead of sauce. Yet in speaking to monolinguals, bilingual children are careful to use only the relevant language.

So how do we start teaching our children two languages?

The main thing to keep in mind is that parents don’t really ‘teach’ children to speak, any more than they teach them to walk or smile. The most important things in language development are exposure and need. If children are exposed to a language in a variety of circumstances with many different people from the time they are born, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it. If they are exposed to two languages in varied circumstances with different people from the moment they are born, and if they need both languages to communicate with the people around them, they will learn both.

Do you really mean that if our children are exposed to two languages from birth they will learn both, just like that?

No, but children can do this with no difficulty, and it doesn’t do them any harm. The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to both languages. Most of the time, one of the two languages you want them to learn will be “more important” somehow, and the trick is to provide enough opportunities for them to use the “less important” one in a way that isn’t forced or artificial. The best way, if you can manage it, is to put children in situations where only the “less important” language is used so that there is no temptation to mix languages or revert to the “more important” language.

What do you mean by saying that one language is “more important”?

One language is likely to seem more important to children when that language is needed more frequently than the other. For example, suppose the American woman and Turkish man in the bilingual home speak English with each other. The children will notice that English is used in cases where Turkish isn’t and think that English is “more important”. But if the same family moves to Turkey, the children will notice that Turkish is used in lots of cases where English isn’t, and may decide Turkish is “more important”. Some children are very sensitive to these differences and may be reluctant to use the “less important” language—especially if other children don’t use it. Others don’t seem to mind.

When we talk about one language being “more important” here, we’re only talking about the children’s point of view! Nonetheless, many adult bilinguals are “dominant” in one of their languages. Even if the differences between their two languages are subtle, most bilinguals feel slightly more at home in one language than the other in certain settings or for talking about certain topics.

Would it be better to start teaching the second language after children have a good start on the first?

No, definitely not, especially in the bilingual home situation where the second language is likely to seem “less important” to the children anyway. Introducing the second language later is just about guaranteed to make them think it’s less important and not worth the effort.

On the other hand, in the bilingual setting situation (say, the Korean couple living in the United States), there isn’t any harm in letting children’s exposure to English begin naturally and gradually. As long as the family stays in the US and the children go to American schools, there is no risk that they will fail to learn English. Actually, the more common problem with the bilingual setting situation is that the children sometimes reject their home language in favor of the outside language.

My partner and I speak different languages. Should we only speak to our children in our own language if we want them to be bilingual?

Many experts recommend the “one-parent-one-language” method for a bilingual home. The idea is that Mommy (or Mamma, or Mutti) always speaks her own language with the children, and Daddy (or Papa, or Vati) always speaks his own language with them. This is a good basis for a successful bilingual home, but it’s not the only one, and even one-parent-one-language can go wrong.

What are some of the problems with one-parent-one-language?

One problem can be balance. Children need to hear both languages often and in a variety of circumstances. If they never hear the ‘less important’ language except from one parent, they may not get enough exposure for that language to develop naturally. It is especially true that when both parents understand the ‘more important’ language, the children don’t feel they need the ‘less important’ one.

In these cases it is essential to find other sources of exposure and other ways of creating the sense of need. Monolingual grandparents can be especially helpful! Can you enlist a cousin or grandmother or a paid babysitter who speaks the other language to look after the children? Is there a daycare or playgroup where they can hear the other language? Can you get videos and story tapes in the other language? All of these can make a big difference; especially exposure that involves interaction with other people, not just watching TV. When our children were small, we did things like this to reinforce Italian in a largely English-speaking setting.

Another problem is keeping the situation natural. If children feel that they are being forced to do something weird or embarrassing, they will probably resist it. Explicit rules say, speaking one language on some days and the other on others can be very hard to enforce and can help create a negative attitude.

Still another problem is exclusion. If one of the parents doesn’t speak the other’s language (in our example, suppose the American woman doesn’t speak Turkish), the children will know that every time they say something in Turkish to their father they are excluding their mother from the conversation. This may make children reluctant to speak one of the parents’ languages when both parents are present. In our experience, a bilingual home is more likely to succeed if both parents at least understand both languages. That way, nobody is ever excluded from a family conversation.

What about siblings?

The arrival of a second child can upset the language balance in a bilingual home, and it’s common for a second child to be less fully bilingual than the first. Usually the first child speaks to the second in the ‘more important’ language, increasing the exposure the second child gets to that language and decreasing the sense of need for the ‘less important’ one. Think about what you want to do about this in advance. Come up with a strategy that fits your own situation, but it’s probably worthwhile to try to enlist the older child or children to promote the ‘less important’ language in your home situation.

My children used to speak our home language just fine, but now that they’re going to school, they mix it up with English all the time. What can I do?

Relax. Language mixing is normal where everyone speaks both languages. It doesn’t mean that the children will forget one language, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t tell the difference any more between two languages. If you scold them for speaking English it may create a negative attitude about the home language and actually make things worse. Instead, create natural situations where the children really need the home language: like calling on those monolingual grandparents again!

You can understand this kind of language mixing if you keep in mind that simple exposure is an important ingredient of children’s language development. When your children were small, they were probably more exposed to your home language – say Korean – than they were to English. Now that they are going to school, they are exposed only to English for hours a day, and they are learning all kinds of new words and new ways of using language, but only in English. They probably don’t know the Korean word for ‘notebook’ or ‘social studies’ or ‘principal’. When they use an English word in a Korean sentence, tell them what it’s called in Korean rather than worrying that they’re losing their home language. Remember, even if they end up with English as their dominant language, they can still be perfectly competent Korean speakers as well.

Further reading

Baker, Colin. 1995. A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters.

Grosjean, François. 1982. Life with Two Languages. Harvard University Press.

Harding-Esch, Edith, and Philip Riley. 2003. The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.