Reader Q+A: Approaches to Bilingual Parenting (Including Non-Native Speakers!)

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Over in our Facebook community, we have quite a few parents who are interested in bilingual parenting and want to know how best to approach it—especially for non-native speakers of another language. Therefore, I am happy to answer today’s reader Q+A, submitted by Sarah: 

Is it better to have specific language learning time or a designated parent who always speaks in one language or is it better to mix and match throughout the day, throughout a sentence/conversation? What if everyone in the family is learning together and no one is fluent?

If you want to start speaking another language with your children, there are a few different approaches that you can take—all of which language learning experts consider effective. Here’s a short overview of three popular options (and ideas on who they’ll work best for):

The One Parent One Language (OPOL) Approach: For families who take this approach, there is a strict division of labor: one parent speaks only one language to the child. Children are expected to respond in the language with which they are spoken to, and parents must be diligent to enforce this. If this approach is practiced consistently, however, the child will learn to associate each language with its respective speaker and will develop skills in both languages simultaneously. This is a particularly good option for families who find themselves in one of two situations: 

  1. A family where only one parent speaks a language other than English (or whatever your community language is). Because OPOL does not expect parents to communicate with each other in a language other than English, each parent could speak to the children in his/her native language, making this a relatively easy split. 
  2. A family who has young children and where the primary caretaker is a native speaker of a language other than English (or whatever your community language is). With this situation, the OPOL approach will ensure that children receive lots of exposure to the target language. Even if homeschooling is conducted mostly in English, OPOL could be practiced outside of school hours. 

The Minority Language At Home (MLAH) Approach: With this approach, the entire family speaks only the minority language—that is, the language that is not spoken in the outside community—at home. For homeschooling families whose learning is done mostly in English, this approach would likely provide the maximum exposure to the target language. It is especially practical for families where both parents speak the target language (even if they have different levels of proficiency), since they need to be able to communicate in and model use of that language. 

The Context Approach: In this model, each language spoken by the family is assigned a specific context. A trilingual family, for example might establish a rule that they speak only German when visiting German-speaking relatives, English during homeschool hours, and Italian during “afterschool” hours. Consistency is key with this approach, to help children transition between languages. This is probably the most realistic approach for homeschooling parents who are learning a language alongside their children—you can establish that dinnertime conversation be in the target language, for example, while communicating in your primary language for the remainder of your waking hours. As you and your children grow in proficiency, the number of contexts in which you communicate in the target language can expand to reflect that. 

As for our family, we started with the OPOL approach when my older son was born, but changed to a mostly MLAH practice when he started showing lots of resistance to speaking Spanish. When I was the only parent speaking Spanish to him, he felt like using it was optional—however, once my husband started speaking Spanish at home (even though he only speaks it at an intermediate level), Spanish became more a part of our family culture, and my son’s resistance lessened. We're not 100% consistent about it--though I wish we could be--but regardless, we are really happy with our son's Spanish language development. And at this point, because Spanish is spoken so much in our home, my younger son's Spanish skills are actually stronger than his English at this point. 

Regardless of what approach you decide to take, remember that you don’t want to make using the target language a disciplinary issue. Punishing your children or withholding attention because they refuse to respond in the target language will not make them want to speak it more—it will only hinder their motivation to learn. If you need ideas for how to playfully encourage use of the target language, you’ll love this list from Adam Beck, the blogger behind Bilingual Monkeys. It was what I used to get my older son speaking Spanish consistently. 

If you’re looking for more inspiration for your parenting journey, I highly recommend following these four bilingual parenting bloggers—they have a wealth of experience and encouragement to share, and I regularly turn to them for ideas on raising my own children bilingually.

If you’re raising a bilingual child, what approach are you using? Have you always used that same approach, or has your strategy changed over time?