The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children

The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children are:

  • One Parent One Language
  • Minority Language at Home
  • Time and Place
  • Mixed Language Influence

The best strategy for you and your children will depend on your personal circumstances and preferences.

Bilingual Strategy I: One Parent One Language

In this strategy, one of the parents always speaks to his child in one language, while the other speaks in a different language.  In this strategy, one parent can speak the minority language and the other the majority language, or both parents can speak a different minority language to the child. In the latter, the child is exposed to both languages plus the majority language or the language of the community or country where they live. You might wonder how the communication evolves when three languages are involved but it’s less difficult than what you might imagine. However it requires a lot of patience and consistence. Let’s see an example.

A mother who speaks Japanese and a father who speaks Spanish, while they both speak English and use English to communicate amongst each other:: The mother can speak Japanese and the father can speak Spanish directly to the child, yet when they are all together, they can speak in English. However, it is better for the child that the mother speaks exclusively in Japanese to him and the father speaks exclusively in Spanish to him.   For instance if the mother wants to say something to her child and to her spouse, then the ideal way to say it would be twice. Once to the child in Japanese, and once to her husband in English. In this way, you focus on teaching your child to separate the languages. He will soon differentiate “ the language of mom” as Japanese, and “the language of dad” as Spanish. It is proven that children accept this rule relatively well and they will put this into practice even better than their parents.

Bilingual Strategy II: Minority Language at Home

This strategy focuses on the practice of the minority language at home. In this case, parents encourage their children to speak the minority language within home by speaking it exclusively themselves. Then, every time they leave home, they switch and start speaking the majority language. In contrast to the One Parent One Language strategy, the children learn how to separate the language not by person but by place. In this case “outside home language” and “ inside home language”. Children seem very comfortable speaking two different languages to the same person but in two different contexts.  Clearly, this strategy will only work if both parents speak the minority language.

Bilingual Strategy III: Time and Place Distinction

This strategy is the most flexible of all, since parents can use it depending on the time and place. For instance, a family might decide to use the minority language at home and they switch to the majority language over the weekends. Or maybe the parents implement the “one parent one language” strategy over the weekdays and then switch to the minority language over the weekends to insist more on the minority language. Others might prefer to use the minority language exclusively at home and then use the majority language every time they step out.

This is the preferred strategy among multicultural families that spend time in different countries. It consists of switching the language depending on the environment where the family is in. For instance, a family of Chinese residents in the United States that usually speaks Chinese to their children might find it useful to speak only English when they travel to China for a reasonable period of time. This may not seem intuitive, but by switching in this manner,  you will be preventing the child from forgetting his/her fluency in English and you will add flexibility to the language strategy.

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Thisis the most common strategy put in place in bilingual programs at school too. In those programs, teachers speak one language or the other one depending on the day. For instance, they might use French on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while using English on Tuesday and Thursday. Or they might speak just French in the mornings and English in the afternoons. They can focus even more on the separation between languages by changing the class. For instance, children may be assigned to the first floor in the mornings where they speak only French and in the afternoon they could assigned to a class on the second floor where they speak only English.

While it may seem odd to change classrooms just to speak a different language, there is significant science behind these approaches.  Psychologists have known for some time that human memory is enhanced by context specific events.  This means that by changing the environment and the context each time the class changes language, children are more easily able to absorb and remember the different langauges.

Mixed Language Influence

This is not a strategy itself. It consists on speaking one or other language depending on daily situations. For instance, parents might use Spanish to speak at dinner and then switch to English to speak about homework. Sometimes it is even more pronounced by alternating words from both languages in the same sentence. I have noticed that this kind of system is broadly used among the Spanish communities living in United States. The extreme use of the Mixed Language Strategy is when people are not able to separate both languages and they tend to mix them creating a new language in the process. The most famous case in the United States, without any doubt, is the development of “Spanglish” which is commonly spoken by Puerto Ricans in the United States. An example that just popped in my mind is the sentence “ El rufo está liqueando”, which is Spanglish. It’s a transformation of the English sentence “The roof is leaking” and the Spanish sentence (of the same meaning): “El techo esta goteando.”

For reasons which may be evident based on the example above,, this is a system that it is not recommended to follow for parents who want to raise their children bilingually because children will have trouble differentiating which language is which, and as a result, may mix parts of both languages without mastering either.

The bottom line of all these strategies is to apply them consistently. If you apply them loosely, your children might not listen to you when you put them into practice. Sometimes, children may apply these strategies in a more effective way than their parents, who might be forgetful or lazy about putting them into practice every day. Emphasize the separations between both languages because it is very important to teach the child the differences between them.

That said, don’t stress yourself out if you occasionally don’t follow your strategy.  Teaching your child a language which is important to you is an extremely powerful way to ensure the child understands where he or she comes from, and it will provide powerful tools for the child’s future. Parents can switch between strategies depending on changes in the environment. If something different occurs in your environment (moving to another country, monolingual family visiting, etc.) be flexible about which strategy to use. The most important issue is which language you want to emphasize more.

In my case, I´m living in an environment which is predominantly English, so I´m trying my best to expose my child to Spanish. That means that I speak exclusively to her in Spanish, I try to spend as much time as I can with only Spanish speakers, I read exclusively in Spanish to her, I only listen to Spanish songs when my child is around and I only let her watch Spanish cartoons.

The key is being persistent with you chosen strategy, make distinction between both languages, and be flexible depending on the changes in the environment.  Every family is different and each family should use the strategy that best suits its special circumstances.

 

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