How to Raise Bilingual Children: Family Language Plans

How to Raise Bilingual Children: Family Language Plans

Teaching a child more than one language is an invaluable gift.  There are countless lifetime benefits to being bilingual!  If you are just getting started with bilingual parenting, you should know that there are many valuable strategies – or family language plans – for raising bilingual kids.

Where do you start when you have decided you want your child to be bilingual?  Making a family language plan is an important step for parents who want to raise bilingual or multilingual kids.  Creating a plan will help you thoughtfully consider how your child will learn multiple languages.  A family language strategy will be your roadmap.  It will help you set up and maintain structure and balance in successfully teaching your child more than one language.

Four common strategies for raising a bilingual child are Minority Language at Home, One Parent One Language, Time and Place, and Bilingual Schooling.  It is important to find the right strategy for you given your unique family, language capabilities, and support system.  This article will give you a brief overview of each of these four strategies.

Take a minute to read tips on getting started with a family language plan in this post:

Creating a Family Language Plan: Find Your Balance

How to raise bilingual children: family language plans.

Minority Language at Home (mL@H)

The first strategy is Minority Language at Home.  In this plan, a family speaks a minority language at home with their children, and the child is exposed to the majority language in the community.  Both parents need to be native speakers or fluent in the minority language to use this strategy.  Minority Language at Home offers a relatively straightforward and structured plan for families.

An example of this strategy would be parents who both speak French and live in the United States.  They speak entirely in French with the children, and English is learned outside of the home.  If parents are bilingual, they may choose to speak the majority language out in the community.  Kids receive language exposure and consistency in the minority language by using it with their family.  They receive language exposure in the majority language in the neighborhood, at school, with friends, and in other community activities.

Key Points to Consider for mL@H:

  • Using your native language with your child (or the language you are most comfortable with) is important for their cognitive and academic growth.
  • Research shows that a strong foundation in the first language is linked to successful learning of a second language as well as academic achievement.
  • Be mindful of the fact that the majority language is a dominant force in kids’ lives.
  • Keep an eye on quantity and quality of language input.

One Parent One Language (OPOL)

The next strategy is One Parent One Language.  As it sounds, one parent consistently uses one language with the child, and the other parent uses a different language.  This strategy works well if each parent is a native speaker of a different language.  It can be used with two minority languages or a minority language and a majority language.  The plan allows families to have a clear structure for consistent language use.  Children know they will use a different language with each parent.

An example of this strategy would be parents who speak Spanish and English and live in the United States.  Mom might be a native Spanish speaker and always uses Spanish with the children.  Dad might only speak English and always uses English with the children.  They also receive language exposure in English out in the community or at school.  Another example would be parents who speak minority languages German and Spanish at home with the children while they learn English at school and in the community.

Key Points to Consider for OPOL:

  • OPOL offers a simple and well-defined separation for language use.
  • Maximize language exposure by using your language to communicate no matter the place, time, or activity.
  • Research shows that knowing two languages makes it easier for a child to add on a third later.
  • Consider the amount of time and interaction the child gets with each parent.
Family language plans: 4 common bilingual parenting approaches from Bilingual Balance.

Time and Place

Time and Place is a strategy that allows a family to set a unique schedule or context for language learning.  This plan centers around learning the minority language with certain boundaries.  Families that want to teach their children a minority language create a plan for using each language depending on the boundaries of time, location, or activity.  It may work for families in which one parent is monolingual and the other parent is bilingual.

An example of this strategy would be a parent who is fluent in Korean and uses it with the children on certain days of the week.  Dad may always speak English with the kids, and Mom uses Korean during the week and English on the weekends.  Another example would be a parent who uses Korean during certain activities like daily mealtime and bathtime – and uses English the rest of the time.

Key Points to Consider for Time & Place:

  • A clear and consistent plan for when and where each language will be used will help you make the most of this strategy.
  • Incorporate a variety of minority language resources in the home to help you easily switch languages (books, music, toys, etc.).
  • Make sure the time spent in the minority language aligns with your goals – a truly bilingual child will need a significant amount of time interacting in each language.
  • Seeking out support resources will help you add in more language exposure (think minority language childcare, bilingual schooling, or time with family and friends in the minority language).

Bilingual Schooling

The last strategy is the use of bilingual schooling to raise bilingual kids.  Choosing a bilingual school program for your child is a valuable option for parents who don’t speak another language fluently but still want to give their child the gift of another language.  Families may only speak the majority language at home, and have their children learn a minority language at school.  Extra minority language exposure can also come from childcare providers, tutors, or language classes.

An example of this strategy would be monolingual parents who enroll their children in a Mandarin immersion school.  Parents set a strong language foundation in the majority language, like English, at home by always using it with their children.  The children learn Mandarin and become bilingual and biliterate through the school program. Read more about choosing bilingual education for your child in this popular post.

Key Points to Consider for Bilingual Schooling:

  • Immersion programs are the fastest growing and most effective type of world language program currently available in U.S. schools.
  • A bilingual school program lasts many years and is a long-term commitment.
  • A bilingual school gives your child the opportunity to learn normal academic content like math, science, and social studies, as well as two languages.
  • As with any schooling, parents play an important partnership role in supporting their child’s learning at home.

Choosing a Strategy

Of course, there are other strategies for raising bilingual kids, such as Two Parents, Two Languages (2P2L). Remember that finding the right family language plan for your unique family, language abilities, and situation is important. I hope this overview of these four common bilingual parenting strategies gets you started thinking about what fits for you. In order to maximize your child’s language input, keep in mind that both language exposure and a need to use the language are essential. The quality of input matters, too. Have fun reading to, interacting and playing with, and talking with your child as you learn together. Consider your language goals for your child and make sure to seek out resources for language support at home and in the community.

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