When you live in a location where your mother tongue is the minority language, you’re faced with a key question, right from the start, if you want to foster active ability in that language in your children:
What language strategy should we adopt? In other words… Which approach to the use of languages in our family will best help our children develop proficiency in the minority language? (If your children attend a majority language school, developing competence in that language likely won’t be an issue.)
First, it’s important to bear in mind that there is no single “best” course of action that every family should follow. After all, each family must work with its own unique set of circumstances and what’s best for one family might not be best for another. That said, it should also be stressed, up front, that the odds of success will most likely be higher in proportion to the amount of input in the minority language that the child receives on a regular basis.
To determine the strategy that’s best for your own family, I encourage you to make a conscious decision with your partner that effectively takes into account your particular circumstances and aims and meets the two “core conditions” for fostering active bilingual ability: The child receives ample meaningful exposure to the minority language and feels a genuine need to use it.
If schooling in the minority language is not part of your plans, in most cases the choice of language strategy will involve some variation of these two well-known approaches:
- The “one person, one language” approach (also called “one parent, one language”), where each parent speaks a single language to the child.
- The “minority language at home” approach, where both parents use the minority language and the majority language is acquired from the community. (There’s certainly a continuum here, however, where one parent—even both parents—could also use the majority language to some degree.)
Read on to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and learn which one my own family chose, and why.
The “one person, one language” approach
- Given sufficient exposure to both languages, this approach can help create a firm foundation for the two languages to grow simultaneously and in a roughly balanced way while establishing an organic need for the child to actively use them on a daily basis.
- Each parent is able to speak his or her mother tongue, an important point that I reflect on in Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me. As I indicate in that post, many parents have a natural desire to interact with their own children in their native language.
- When only one parent is providing input in the minority language—and especially if that parent isn’t the main caregiver—there may not be sufficient exposure in that language to keep pace with the development of the majority language. Thus, the majority language grows dominant and the minority language more passive. This can be particularly true once the child begins attending school in the community and uses the majority language even more intensively. (This seems to be the main difficulty facing families pursuing the “one person, one language” approach in Japan.)
- How will the parents communicate with each other? If the partner who speaks the minority language also regularly uses the majority language, the child will come to recognize that this parent has facility in that language, too. The child’s need to use the minority language might then be compromised, and undermining this need for the language can make it harder to effectively maintain the “one person, one language” approach. (In Japan, it’s not unusual to see the parent speaking in English to the child, but the child responding in Japanese.)
The “minority language at home” approach
- This strategy can substantially boost the amount of exposure that the child receives in the minority language. This is especially true, of course, when the parent who speaks the minority language as a mother tongue is unable to spend as much time with the child as the other parent.
- A clear distinction is drawn between the use of the two languages: in the child’s mind, the minority language is used at home, the majority language is used outside the home. Although a similar distinction can be set with the “one person, one language” approach—the minority language is used with one parent, the majority language with the other—this distinction may weaken if the parents aren’t consistent about this usage.
- One parent must agree to speak to his or her children in a second language to maintain the minority language environment at home. For parents with lower-level ability in that language, this may be problematic and a source of stress. Even for parents with stronger ability, interacting with their children in their non-native language can feel unnatural and dissatisfying. The solution, for some families, is a compromise, where the majority language parent uses a balance of both languages rather than only speaking the second language. (One common scenario involves this parent using the majority language when alone with the child, then switching to the minority language when the family is together.)
- The lack of input in the majority language at home can result in that language developing more slowly. Though the child generally “catches up” with peers once attending a school in the community, his introduction to schooling in the majority language can be challenging, emotionally, and he may remain at an academic disadvantage without some form of parental support.
My own family’s decision
In a way, our decision was easy. Because my wife’s English level is fairly low—and she wished to communicate with our children in Japanese, her mother tongue (which I completely understand)—we adopted the “one person, one language” approach from the very beginning and will likely stick with it.
The decision itself may have been simple, but sustaining this strategy over the years—when I’m the main source of their English exposure and not their main caregiver—has demanded enormous effort on an ongoing basis. At this point—Lulu is 8 and Roy is 5 (as of November 2012)—I can say that the effort has largely paid off: both children have gained good English ability, including strong (for their age) reading and writing skills, and will only interact with me in English.
At the same time, it’s true that our approach has had some downsides. Before we had children, Keiko and I regularly used each other’s languages, observing “English days” and “Japanese days.” Our communication (particularly in Japanese) was pretty good and we were both making strides in our second languages.
After the kids arrived, however, I was reluctant to continue using Japanese at home. Like I touched on above, I didn’t want to undermine their need to use English with me. And so, 99% of the time, I speak English and Keiko speaks Japanese—even when we’re speaking to each other.
I’ll be honest to say that this has been a drag on both our communication and our language-learning progress, but our priority right now, while the children are small, is their bilingual development. Perhaps there’s always a price to pay, somewhere, in this quest to raise bilingual kids.
Commit to it, and be consistent
Whatever strategy seems to make the most sense for your family, tailor it to your needs and commit to it wholeheartedly. Not only is it important to consciously choose the best approach for your situation, you should be as consistent as you can about carrying out that intention.
This doesn’t mean being rigid, though. If circumstances change, and warrant a change of tactics, assess the new conditions and take appropriate action to rebalance the language exposure the child will receive moving forward. This may call for a change of language strategy within the family, or a stronger effort within the strategy you’re already pursuing.
Of course, consider the child’s feelings carefully when making any significant changes, especially if a parent will begin using a different language. Discuss such changes with the child (if he’s old enough) and implement them gently, with an eye on the child’s reaction.