Raising Bilinguals: Tips from the Coal Face

 

At Struck Fluent, many of our clients as well as tutors Alice and Lucy, are raising bilingual families. We’re often asked for our thoughts on how to ensure children grow up fluent in both their parents’ language (or languages!) so we asked Lucy to share her top tips and tricks for multi-lingual family life.

What is fluency anyway?

When you start breaking it down, fluency in a language is a pretty involved idea. Language teachers divide language into four skills which are categorised as ‘active’ (speaking and writing) and ‘passive’ (listening and reading). Even in our first languages, we’ll be better at some of these skills than others and depending on the kind of work we do and the lifestyles we lead, we’ll also need to use some more than others.

When you start out on your bilingual journey, it’s worth thinking about how important each of these skills are to you and your family, and how realistic a balance you can achieve whilst keeping your sanity. For example, my husband and I are bringing our son up bilingual in English and Korean. Most important to us is that he can communicate with his grandparents and extended family, so our focus is on speaking and listening. Options for formally learning to read and write Korean are limited where we live, so while we read to him in Korean and will teach him the Korean writing system when he’s old enough, we are more relaxed about these skills: we’d love him to have the option to live and work in Korea if he wants to, and feel that with a solid foundation in the spoken language he will be able to pick up writing skills later in life.

Motivation, motivation, motivation

Given the above, it’s rare that bilingual children will be equally able in both languages. They will almost always have stronger and weaker skills in both a primary and a secondary language, with the language of the country they live in being the primary one. This is normal, and in their younger years children will generally be happy to natter away in both regardless.  It is worth considering though, that as they grow up children will spend increasing amounts of time outside the home interacting in and – this is the crucial bit – building relationships in their primary language. Relationships are the lifeblood of language: linguists highlight every generation of teens inventing their own language to mark themselves out as separate from adults, or twins inventing whole languages of their own. Especially by the time they hit their teens, peer relationships become children’s focus, and unless they have a clear set of motivations to use their secondary language, the appeal begins to fade. Add in some standard teenage rebellion and fear of Being Different and it’s easy to see how the secondary language becomes a chore; an imposition; something they only use to speak to their dad anyway so what’s the point (door slam, eyeroll, sigh).

One way to combat this is to provide contexts outside the home in which the secondary language is spoken, thus helping children (and you!) to build a network of other secondary language speakers. If you’re in a big city this can be pretty simple – just rock on down to your local foreign-language playgroup (check ours out here) or hit up Meetup for some relaxed socialising. Chinese speakers in particular can be pretty sure of a Saturday school nearby for more formal learning and friend-making. If you live further afield, this is tricksier and you may have to travel further or set up your own groups.

Finances allowing, the more regular you can make trips to the country where your language is spoken, the better – many families dedicate summer holidays to such trips, or head over for the main festivals – this is a great option as it helps children participate in and understand their second culture as well as their second language.

If all of the above are impossible, don’t despair – there are a number of approaches to using the language in the home that work well too, and we look at these below.

Which language when?

Bilingual families usually lean towards the One Parent One Language method (OPOL for short). This is pretty much what it says on the tin: children communicate with one parent in the primary language and the other in the secondary language. Sounds great, right? And in many ways it is – in fact it’s widely regarded as the most successful method out there. But. As discussed above, if it’s all you do, after a while children cotton on that the only time they’re using the secondary language is with that one parent. Also, how do you have a three-way conversation between parents and children using this method? Especially if you don’t speak your partner’s language yourself? As children get older and have a decent foundation in their secondary language, it can make sense not to stick too rigidly to OPOL. There are a few things you can do to mix it up a bit and keep that motivation flowing:

  • If you don’t speak your partner’s language, get in touch and let us help you learn it! Aim at least to muddle through everyday family conversation: this has the dual effect of setting a good example and allowing your children the opportunity to teach you – this reversal of the typical power dynamic is often really good for keeping kids and teens engaged.

 

  • Mix up how and when you use the secondary language. For some families, this means dividing the week into – for example – ‘German days’ and ‘English days’. For us, what’s really worked is concentrating on space rather than time and dividing our flat into ‘Korean rooms’ and ‘English rooms’. This adds an element of humour and playfulness – kids can enforce this rule on parents (reversal of power dynamic again) and can literally step out if they need to switch into the other language, before plunging back in again. For us, it makes things a bit silly and – for me as an adult language learner too – a bit less burdensome.

 

  • Bring the second culture into the home as much as the language. Media is your friend here: family film nights and series binges, second-language music and second-culture festival celebrations all make great opportunities to dive into the secondary language.

We hope this has been helpful – giving your kids a second language is an awesome thing and opens so many doors for them. It’s also super tough so bilingual-family readers: we salute you! Let us know what you think of our ideas – we always love to hear from you.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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