Note: Be sure to read the many comments below this post, too.
Recently, I was posed the same tricky question by several readers…
Of course, like many of the issues that arise on the bilingual journey, there’s no “right” answer to this question. A suitable response to a challenge like this is one that fits the family’s particular circumstances and goals most effectively.
That being said, it might be helpful if I share how I’ve handled this dilemma with my own kids. Even if my strategy doesn’t suit you, perhaps these thoughts will be useful to hear as you consider your own response.
My highest priority
In my case, my highest priority during my children’s first years was establishing a firm foundation for communication in English, our minority language. Essentially, I sought to “condition” them so that they would only communicate with me in English when they began to speak. (Don’t worry, I decided against using electric shocks. )
To achieve this, I knew it was vital that I hit the ground running, right from birth, and be both very consistent, and very persistent, about speaking to them in English. The more they heard me speaking Japanese, our majority language, the greater the risk that they would realize they didn’t really need to use English with me at all.
To my mind, the most crucial years were the first three: these were the years to vigorously nurture our communication in the minority language, and this meant that I needed to be especially vigilant about my own use of language during this time. I needed to emphasize English, while minimizing—to whatever degree I could—my use of Japanese. Once our communication in English was firmly established, I could then gradually relax this stance. At that point, speaking the majority language would become less of an issue.
In other words, I did what I could to avoid speaking the majority language in their presence while they were babies and toddlers. I spoke only English to them, at all times and in all situations, and when I needed to switch to Japanese to speak with others in the community, I would try to do this in a quieter tone, so it was harder for my kids to hear me. By contrast, my English was always voiced strongly, clearly.
And to be honest, I actively avoided social settings where I might have to use a lot of Japanese. This tactic may sound extreme, but remember, my highest priority was establishing a firm foundation for communication in English. To me, this was a far greater priority, with a far greater payoff, than any passing activity or event we may have missed in those early years.
“Conditioning” the child
Now that my children are older (they’re 9 and 6, as of this post), and have become “conditioned” to use only the minority language with me, I believe that this strategy helped accomplish my aim. And as I expected, because English is entrenched as our language of communication, I don’t feel the need to be as vigilant about using Japanese in their presence. I still consciously avoid it, when I can, but I no longer have the same concern about its influence on their language development. As a result, I feel easier about speaking Japanese when the occasion calls for it.
In my view, then, the key question is: What’s your real priority? Connecting with your community is important, I understand that, but be careful that your use of the majority language doesn’t undermine your greater goal for your child’s language development. The first few years, which will lay the foundation for your communication, are absolutely critical when it comes to “conditioning” the child to use the minority language with you.
This isn’t to say that communication in the minority language can’t be realized later—of course it can—but if you hope to communicate in this language throughout the life of your relationship, starting with the child’s first words, I would encourage you to be very mindful of your use of the majority language in the child’s presence, particularly in those earliest years.
Want more helpful food for thought? See…
Embarrassment over speaking a “foreign language” in public (great thread at The Bilingual Zoo)