Welcome! So, you are expecting a child and want to raise it bilingually? Or you are moving to a new culture with a new language and would like your child to benefit? Or would you simply like to introduce your child to a new language early on and have no glue how to do it?
The two strategies I will introduce are well-established methods to raise bilingual children. Each method has its set of advantages and challenges. They are not completely interchangeable, as it depends a bit on the situation of your family which of them will work better.
THE OPOL METHOD:
“OPOL” stands for “One Person, One Language”. This clearly implies that each parent will speak one language with the child, most often their native language. In our case, I speak German with our children, while Daddy speaks Portuguese. This method is the most commonly used. Early on, the language is associated to the specific person and can therefore be distinguished.
- Advantages: creates the least confusion between the languages, ensures that children can speak the language of both extended families (grandparents, cousins, etc.)
- Challenges: too little exposure to one language (especially if one of the parent has much less interaction and play time), one of the parent’s language is the majority language (language spoken in the outside environment, school, etc.), some parents might find it awkward to speak a “secret language” to their children in front of friends and peers who will not understand what is being said
THE ML@H METHOD:
“ML@H” stands for Minority Language at home and is self-explanatory. In this case everyone at home speaks the minority language, while the children are educated and spoken to in the majority language on the “outside” . So, when both parents speak a language different from the community/culture they live in, they will raise their children in that language (even though one of the parent might not be a native speaker).
- Advantages: more exposure to the minority language than in the OPOL method, more flexible in terms of speaking the minority language outside of the house (some parents may chose to switch when immersed in the community)
- Challenges: accent of the non-native parent speaker could be passed on to children, immersion into majority language in daily life may make it hard to keep up the minority language at home (danger of mixing), moving to a community with a new majority language , your children might not speak the majority language with the same proficiency as their peers
Yes, I know… there are no clear winners in this game. It’s a question of your specific situation. For example, in our case it makes most sense to go with the OPOL method, as we have different native languages and the majority language of the community has changed frequently (from Danish to Chinese to French over the last three years). Since we want to ensure our children know our native tongues, we continue to speak to them separately, even outside the house. This is sometimes controversial, especially when you move away from big cities or you find yourself amongst friends that do not speak your language. But with a bit of explanation, most people agree it offers great benefits to our children. If you as a couple have the same background and language, but live in a different culture (e.g. this would be most expat families), the ML@H method is the only one that makes sense.
One thing is certain, you need to ensure that each language receives enough exposure and is spoken to the children by more than just the parent (otherwise, your clever children might think you’re making this up). Ways to increase the amount of time or speakers can be play dates with other children that speak the same language (or the parents, depending on the kids’ age), baby groups, nannies or au pairs, spending summer camps abroad or vacation time with extended family, or find a school that teaches in your native language. And , as in our case, once your little one orders the food in the restaurant in French and then turns around to speak to you in German, you’ll be proud of all your efforts. BUT…no time to slack now, this is a “work in progress” until your child is not a child anymore…