It is a challenge in raising a bilingual child to provide an environment where he or she can be equally exposed to both languages. The theory is one thing, though, and real life experiences prove how difficult, if not impossible, it is to ensure that the child has a balanced exposure to both languages.
Recently, I got in touch with Elsa, a friend I haven’t seen for the last three years. A Spanish lady married to an English man and living in an English-speaking community, she always spoke to her children in her mother tongue. This is a rule number one in the OPOL (One Parent One Language) strategy, which Elsa has been intuitively using since her first child was born. It is also one of the most common language systems for bilingual families to allow introducing children to two languages at the same time. Each parent can communicate with the child in their heritage language and… that’s it. They don’t need to do anything extraordinary to create a little bilingual. How uncomplicated and effortless is that?!
Nevertheless, now Elsa’s five-year-old son responds back in English every time she addresses him in Spanish. To make things worse, a few days ago Max didn’t understand what his mum had said in Spanish and asked for an English translation. How come?
Such situations apparently happen quite often, especially in families where one parent doesn’t speak the language of the other parent. A child can understand two languages but for some reasons decides to express themselves only in one of them. Linguists call it receptive (or passive) bilingualism. Why does it happen? Why children who have been addressed from birth in two languages, give up on one language in favour of another? Is there a chance to reverse this process and help the child acquire full competence in both languages?
Here is a list of six the most common reasons for receptive bilingualism – for my friend Elsa and for any other parent, who feels that they are losing the balance between their heritage and the majority language.
1. Two Parents, Two Languages
This is Elsa’s family situation. One parent doesn’t understand the language the other parent is using to speak with their child. In the result, the family becomes monolingual, communicating in a language, which both parents can speak (English in my friend’s case).
- The parent who cannot speak the minority language can learn it, at least to some extent. That can help understand the conversations. However, both from my personal and linguistic experiences I would advise against speaking regularly a second language to a child who is older than three years. This is because there is a high risk that a parent can pass onto the child all his or her stylistic and grammar errors and their non-native accent.
- Parents need to agree on their goal of bilingualism and the person who speaks the minority language should not feel discouraged by using the language his or her partner cannot understand.
2. Exposure to Language
Researchers still cannot agree on how much exposure to a language is “enough”. According to a variety of research, it ranges between 20% and 50% of the total awake time. It depends on many factors, like how much time a parent actively spends on communicating in the minority language and whether there are any other ways to expose the child to the language.
- Try to keep the balance between the minority and community languages. With my son, I have been trying to maintain the 50% – 50% ratio in between Polish and English. When he started preschool at three, we switched completely to Polish and since then this has been the only language we are using at home.
- School-age children for most of the day are exposed to the majority language, so it is worth to seek additional ways to speak the minority language actively. This could include making friends with the kids from the minority community, frequent communication with other family members (in our case Skype is the treasure), finding an au-pair, etc.
- A parent who works full time and speaks the minority language can make up for imbalances by developing an evening reading routine. My little trick has always been to sit my son on my lap so that he could not only hear but also see the text I was reading and experience it from a different perspective. You might also want to try running your finger over the text.
- Summer camps and weekend schools are an excellent alternative to support the second language.
3. Lack of Consistency
If you want your child to speak your language, both of you need to communicate in this language. Otherwise, it gets lost. Your child will think that your minority language is not as important as the language other people use to communicate, and he will give up on it. Apparently, this is what happened to my friend’s family. While at first Elsa would always address Max in Spanish, with the time passing more and more often she would communicate with him in English, not wanting her husband to feel excluded from the conversations. She also wouldn’t remind her son to speak Spanish whenever he responded in English.
- Whenever your child responds in the majority language, correct them. I cannot overestimate how important it is to keep calm and stay firm and avoid making an unnecessary pressure on the child.
- Be patient. Don’t let anyone else discourage you. You set yourself a goal – to introduce your child to two languages – and you need to stay on your path.
4. Lack of Need for the Language
If you don’t create for yourself the need to use the minority language, be sure that your child will abandon your heritage language even before you realise what is going on.
- Speak your mother tongue with your child
- Communicate with your minority language family as often as you can
- Visit your original country as frequently as possible
- Make new friends
- Read books, buy magazines, solve riddles, etc.
- Encourage your child to write letters to the family who speaks your mother tongue
- In the kitchen, stick labels on the jars with your minority language descriptions
- Watch films and programs. We do not have a TV at home, but YouTube has proven to be a great help
5. Language Skills
What is a small problem when a child is small, increases and sometimes becomes a barrier when they get older. Just like your child is learning and developing the majority language at school, they also need to develop their minority language.
- Translate everything your child is saying in the community language into your minority language. Speak without a “teacher’s tone of voice”. Be casual. Be friendly. Make suggestions. Ask questions to make sure that you understood what your child meant. Be a helpful parent rather than a teacher.
- Help yourself with a dictionary. It’s not a shame but a way to teach your child how to find help.
6. Lack of Pride
If your child is not proud of the language and the culture he or she is sharing, it becomes for them too easy to give up on. This can happen anytime, so you need to keep your eyes and ears constantly open. I’ve heard of kids as young as three, who would refuse to speak their parent’s minority language and even more often I’ve heard of school-age children who would give up on the language that they find “less attractive” or even “embarrassing”.
- Talk with your child as often as you can about your country of origin, your childhood, and your family
- Read books, listen to music and watch films in your minority language
- Make your child feel proud that they speak more than one language. Tell them how amazing it is that they can communicate with more people all around the globe and that they can read books in more languages. Praise them.
- Be proud yourself. You can speak two languages (or maybe more), and this is amazing! Take your every opportunity to remind your little person that you can speak more than one language. Make your child feel what a special gift it is. Make them feel they stand out in the best possible way. The sooner you start working on it, the easier it will be for you to get through the language rejection phase (and the phase will come, sooner or later; it depends on you how strong it will be).
- Make it obvious and normal that your grammar or accent don’t have to be perfect if you are speaking a second language. I feel proud whenever my son corrects my pronunciation, and I always take an opportunity to show him my appreciation.
There is one more thing I always keep in mind: to maintain my good relationship with my child as a priority. This is why whatever we are doing, I watch him to make sure that he’s taking his steps at his pace, not mine. It’s good to speak two languages, but it’s even better to feel safe, happy, and loved while walking the bilingual path.