If you and your partner are of the same nationality and you’re living in a country with a different majority language to yours, to communicate with your child most probably you are using the strategy called Minority Language at Home (ML@H). The way it works is quite simple – you can continue speaking to your child in your mother tongue and the community introduces the majority language. The reason you’re following this strategy is simple. As a foreign speaker, you think (or have been told) that you are not proficient enough to teach your child a language that is not your mother tongue. Sometimes, you have been advised that this is the only way for you to preserve your heritage language and make sure it’s still there when your child starts school and for most of the day becomes immersed in the community language. It’s also easier to speak your native language instead of constantly checking on your grammar and pronunciation of foreign words. It’s uncomplicated. It’s clear. Everybody knows what to do.
The Magic 30%
However, as always when things look nearly too good to be true, there is this one tiny problem. To become a proficient speaker a baby needs to be exposed to a language for at least 30% of their awake time. It means that if your little one wakes up at 8.00 am and goes to bed at 7.00 pm with a three-hour long nap in the middle of the day, just like my son used to do for quite a while (I know, I’ve been lucky), ideally he or she should be exposed to the other language for a minimum of 2,5 hours a day. 17,5 hours a week. Absolutely, feel free to recalculate it and tailor the hours to your family.
In reality, it equals with organising daily play dates, day care, playgroups, etc. for at least 17,5 hours a week. If a child is exposed to the other language for less time than that, multiple studies prove that he or she will fully develop their additional language abilities only when they start preschool or school and are exposed to the other language for the required amount of time. In the result, in English-speaking communities, they will acquire English as an Additional Language (EAL), otherwise called English as a Second Language, English as a Foreign Language, or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
If you use the approach called Minority Language at Home you must be prepared to bear all the consequences – the good ones, and, first and the foremost, the worse ones. The way you take up this challenge will shape up your child’s well-being for the next few years. Both my husband and I are Polish, therefore according to the old-school language specialists in our case ML@H seemed the most natural communication strategy. However, for many reasons, some of which I’ve already explained here, I wasn’t keen to use it.
Flaws of the Minority Language at Home Strategy
I knew it that I wouldn’t be able to immerse my son in the English language for as much as 17,5 hours a week. Next to thinking of your child’s bilingualism there’s also your “normal” life and everyday duties, and as a parent, I had to confront it.
Furthermore, what does “exposition” mean? What does it mean to “immerse in the other language”? Just go to a playgroup and let the kids play together? Mind you, when you have a baby or a toddler, you cannot expect that his peers would be great conversationalists right from the start. You may have an opportunity to speak with other mums or dads, but your baby won’t necessarily benefit from your meaningful conversations while he’s crawling around and chewing on toys. You can also meet friends at other places, but you must be either very lucky or very wealthy (or both) if you can afford to spend a few hours every day just on chatting with friends.
Yet, if you talk to the majority of the linguistic experts, what advice will they offer to parents who live in foreign countries? Minority Language at Home, of course! And, even more obviously, the community language as the second language when the child starts school at the age of five, or preschool at three. This option seems like the lesser of two evils when you must choose between chaotic teaching without any rules (with passing onto him or her all your grammar and stylistics sins), and leaving the introduction of the other language to teachers when your child is five.
The Majority Language as an Additional Language
English as an Additional Language was not what I wanted for my son. “Additional”, this word bothered me the most, I must confess. My husband and I wanted our child to feel native in his country of birth right from the start of his life, and it felt our duty as parents to ensure that he feels safe and understands and identifies with the community, in which he lives. Perhaps our imagination wasn’t big enough but we couldn’t picture our little son feeling confident and happy in the neighbourhood if right from the start he didn’t speak the same language as other children.
It all started quite early. I was pregnant when we met this Russian couple. We had the same midwife, a charming English lady who introduced us to one another because she’d thought that being from the same part of Europe would make us instant friends. Marina and Ivan were expecting their second child, with the older daughter being five and ready for school.
“Ready” was a big word, though. In the first week, Katya wet her pants because she didn’t know how to tell the teacher that she needed to go to the toilet. Over the next few days, her parents had to make her go to school because she was so ashamed of the accident. With the time passing the situation slowly started improving, nevertheless, whenever you asked her about the school, this bubbly, happy kid would become silent. She wanted to make friends, but she didn’t know how! Quite understandable, if you think that her only way of communication was in the language that the rest of the class couldn’t possibly speak or comprehend. Two different worlds, which in order to meet needed something that you cannot buy or get instantly: Time.
You will often hear this opinion on the Minority Language at Home strategy that children are adaptable and quickly get used to the situation when they can understand little next to nothing from what others say. You’ll hear that children do not need to communicate in the same language to play together. That it is unnecessary to worry because “they will be fine”. Yes, they will be. One day.
Why Teach the Majority Language?
I’m often asked why it was so important to me to make my son bilingual right from the start. After all, many parents communicate only in their heritage language and allow their children to immerse in the majority language when the time comes (five years old), and they are… yes, fine. Well, there was only one reason, really. I wanted my little boy to get the same chance as any other kid around. I wanted him to start from the same level, with the same language abilities and the same chances. Instead of waiting and “adapting” I wanted him to begin from day one with the same confidence and communication skills as other children.
Life brings surprises and we have to tailor our lives to new circumstances, whether we want it or not. If we move to another country with older children, all family needs to bear the costs of this decision. But, if we have an infant or a toddler who start up their lives in a new country, why not help them? Why not introduce to the majority language – at their pace and in the friendliest environment they could ever get: surrounded by the family and with the help of their loving, understanding and patient parents? Why not apply the same rules and emotions both to an older and a younger child? Or, an adult? No one wants to be confused when a teacher asks them questions, no one wants to feel alone or isolated, or worried, or upset because they cannot express their feelings or thoughts. That’s what my husband and I imagined. Quite a disaster we imagined, I know. How far from the reality we were, only a child concerned could tell, if he was mature enough to express it.
Many parents take this extra effort and teach their children various words in the majority language. It’s a great help for the start and might be the beginning of an incredible language journey. Learning single words helps accommodate to the environment outside the home but still is not enough to allow to communicate freely and on the same level as monolingual peers who have been speaking the community language from birth. Why not take this one more step ahead and implement some routine into the introduction of the language? Making your child naturally bilingual does not have to be your parental goal but it will come at a premium.
Minority Language at Home and What’s Next
I still remember little Katya and her daily emotional challenges. It seemed like a problem first and foremost for the child but also an issue for everybody else involved. For other children who needed to be challenged about how to make friends with someone who didn’t speak their language, and for the teachers who had to find the ways to come closer to a child whom they couldn’t even address properly.
In the United Kingdom alone in January 2016 there were 20.1% of children who start school with a first language “known or believed to be other than English”. 20.1% of state primary school! This is an average, in some areas, it’s a few times higher, e.g. in eastern London English is a second language to over 75% of children, same in Newham and Westminster, not to mention the famous school in Sparkhill, Birmingham, where every child speaks English as a second language.
Most of those kids have foreign parents, just like us. The majority begins school with little or no English. From the first day of education, they jump into an environment that is completely strange to them. Many will struggle to integrate and will feel socially isolated due to poor language skills and lack of cultural knowledge. You will know this if you are a teacher but no one will tell you this officially unless it’s one of those tabloids that chase up the immigrants.
When a child is immersed in a second language, initially they often go through the so-called “silent phase”. It’s quite common that a child who doesn’t speak the dominant language refuses to communicate until they have become more familiar with the new sounds and feel more comfortable in speaking the new language. Over the years, specialists have been suggesting that this could be compared to babies who spend the first year focused on listening and comprehension. Personally, I am not sure how right this is. Babies do communicate, don’t they! They are rarely quiet and their inability to speak our “grown-up” language seems developmental rather than related to the need of “grasping” enough language before they start talking.
It appears that the younger the child is, the longer the silent period tends to last – from a few weeks or a few months up to a year, or more. How much of that time results from the need to gather new words to communicate properly, and how much is associated with insecurity, feeling unsafe or confused, nobody knows. To us as parents, it was enough to sow the seeds of doubt and scare us away from leaving the language issue untouched until our son goes to school. The question was, what else we could do.
Family Can Do More
On my blog, I will be explaining in more detail the method I developed and have been using until my son was three. It proved to be just the right amount of time to prepare him for the encounter with preschool and later with school without leaving him with all my grammar and stylistic sins related to speaking my second, non-perfect language.
Your second language may be better than mine, or you might feel that you are struggling with it. Perhaps you will think that your additional language skills are not good enough to introduce this language to your child but the good news is that most probably you are mistaken. With my help, you will be introducing your child to the community language by his or her third birthday. Children at this stage use simple words and simple phrases. They are also still before the stage when they become grammar conscious, so any errors you make will go unnoticed or will be easy to correct in the near future.
What I would like to encourage you to do is to create a solid base, thanks to which it will be easier for your child to acquire the community language when the right time comes, i.e. after his third birthday. You will help him learn the majority language at the same time as he will be learning your mother tongue, and you will help learn it at your child’s own pace. No pressure, no rush, no expectations. You will have three years to prepare him to move on to the next stage when you will be using the old-school Minority Language at Home Strategy. Only after the third birthday, no sooner. And, when you get to that stage, your child will already be comfortable with his other language. No, not the “additional one”. There won’t be any additional language, just the two languages that your child acquired naturally, at the same time and with the help of his mum or dad. Or, both parents.
It is true that children are like sponges. They are incredibly adaptable indeed and it’s just a question whether it will be the parent who goes with them side by side and helps them out while they are learning or they will be left alone to deal with the outside world and new challenges when at the age of five they have to start to learn the community language because they have no other choice.