So in your family you need two languages; one is a home language and one is the community language. You speak your home language (German) with your child and your partner speaks English with them- the community language. You and your partner speak English together. At the moment, your child spends most of her time with you as she is three years old. She understands German very well and tends to respond to you in English. You know that children tend to use the community language more when they go to school in that language and develop relationships with community language peers. You’re wondering about how to encourage your daughter to use German with you rather than English. Is it just a phase? Great question!
The One Person One Language Approach can give rise to heated debate as people can have strong feelings about it. It’s worth considering where it came from. Originally, it was a description of what some multilingual families did an observation of language choices in families. It was never intended to be a recipe or a prescription for how to best raise multilingual children. And the research doesn’t support it as the single most effective way to become multilingual either. The dynamics are way more nuanced than a right or a wrong way to do it. And it depends on what your language goals are and they can change over time. Several elements are involved, some you have influence over, others you don’t. Let’s have a look at what’s involved. Colin Baker who is a well-known author in the field describes raising multilingual children as like gardening. You can prepare the soil and nurture it as best you can, carefully plant the seeds, get rid of weeds, and water your plants. But you can’t control the weather, sunshine, rain, an unexpected frost. And the outcome is uncertain. It all takes time and there isn’t a straight path from A to B.
Let’s have a look at what’s in the mix: the languages in question, how closely they’re related to each other, how different they are (are they both tonal or is only one tonal?), the amount of exposure to the languages, the age at which exposure begins, the quality of exposure (watching cartoons is not enough), the number of opportunities to use the languages, your child’s perception of a need to use them, innate language ability, motivation, the status of the language as home or community, what your child uses the languages for (home, school, religion, activities), your child’s personality and style of learning. You can’t control the nature of the languages or their status in the country you live in. You can’t control how your child responds to you and you don’t want to end up in a battle of wills. The good news is that you can focus on yourself and what you do.
Annick de Houwer, a researcher of multilingual language development reminds us that if it’s socially acceptable for children to answer in a language other than the one you use with them, then they may have no need to actually speak two languages. We communicate the social acceptability of language choices by our own ways of using the languages. It is in our interactions with our children that they’re socialised into learning what we expect from them in terms of which languages they use with different people.
You get to choose what language you use with your child. So in this scenario, you would only speak German with your little girl, no matter the circumstances. This would mean you using German with your little girl when there are people present who don’t understand German. So you’d always address your daughter in German. If you’re out and about and everyone is speaking English, you stick with German. If English-speaking grandparents are visiting, you stick with German. The fancy name for this is a monolingual discourse strategy. You’re encouraging your child to use your language when they want to communicate with you. You can do things like be much slower to respond if she uses English with you; like you have a hearing impairment. Some people talk about pretending not to understand- English in your situation. That doesn’t appeal to me though because it’s not genuine and your child knows you speak both. I prefer the being slower to respond tactic. You can say something like “What?” (its equivalent in German) if your child asks something in English. Depending on the age of your child, you can ask them to say what they want to say in your language. Ultimately, you have to work out what fits with your values, your situation, your child’s personality and your relationship dynamics. When I suggested to my daughter recently that we spend 10 minutes talking in Irish each day, she was really resistant. (She’s 9 and ½). As it turns out, she felt self-conscious about us hearing her use it. But I persisted- we set the timer on the phone and we had a treat afterwards. And now, if I switch to English in the 10 minutes, she delights in reminding me to use Irish! And for now at least, she’s happy to chatter away with me in Irish- for the 10 minutes anyway!
If you do stick with German and your partner does the same for English, then you’re supporting your child’s active use of both languages. There are gaps and contradictory findings in the research when it comes to what are called parental discourse strategies though. Here is a list of what parents have been found to do when it comes to responding to their children’s language choice. The strategies are organised from most direct (explicit strategies) to least direct (implicit strategies). Spoiler alert, #1 is considered to be the more effective for your child’s use of your language. Do keep reading though because there’s something else to consider. (And I think you need to take your own cultural context into account here and tendencies to be more or less direct.)
#1 Explicit correction where you explicitly ask your child to repeat what they said but in your target language. It looks like this:
Parent says: “Say it in German”
Parent says: “Say saft”
Parent says: “Don’t speak English with me.” Or “Speak German with me” would be more positive!
# 2 Clarification request
This is where you prompt your child to restate the utterance in the target language. It looks like this:
Parent says: “Say it again”
Parent says: “I don’t understand”
# 3 A clarification request with a yes/no question confirms whether or not you understood the child’s utterance by rephrasing what your child said into the form of a Yes/No question. It would look like this:
Child: I want juice
Parent: Du wilst Saft?
This is showing your child that you understood the other language but a potential problem with is that your child doesn’t need to repair the language choice. They can simply reply with a nod or shake of the head. So it’s considered a less demanding approach than # 2.
# 4 Restating what the child said in the target language but not in a question form. Same issue here in that it doesn’t require your child to repair what they said. And there is some research to show that children tend to continue the conversation without responding to what the parent said. (They just want to get their message across to you!)
# 5 Move on where you just continue the conversation by responding to what your child said without drawing attention to the fact that they selected the other language when talking to you.
# 6 You repeat your child’s mixed or non-target language utterance or you respond with a mixed utterance of your own. Doing this strongly encourages your child to use both languages with you.
There is research to show that children who are consistently met with the explicit correction of #1 above tend to become active users of the home language. The thinking is that these explicit cues communicate clearly to the child what the language requirement is. The other more indirect strategies may not be as effective because they’re indirect or too subtle. The explicit strategy lets the child know that the issue was with their choice of language and not with grammar or pronunciation in their utterance. It’s also important to remember that your strategy will most likely change depending on your child’s level of language ability in your language, schooling, changes in where you are living etc. Parents tend to change the strategy in response to the changes in family context. And that’s really important; it’s a tuned-in response. It’s not reasonable to expect a child with limited skills in one language to only use that language with you. So you might need to be flexible for a while and when you notice their language level improving, you can adjust your response strategy accordingly. Your relationship is key. And it’s important to think about your unique situation.
One drawback of OPOL is that it’s not always enough to overcome the might of the community language. One person just can’t pull it off on their own. Even if you are consistent in your use of German, this will not necessarily lead to your child’s active use of your language. According to Annick de Houwer, in situations where both parents speak the community language at home and one parent also speaks a home language, these families stand the most chance of having children who speak one language (the community one). The research doesn’t explain this fully but one possible explanation is that the frequency of exposure to the home language if only one parent speaks it isn’t enough. But it’s worth bearing in mind that there are lots of gaps in the research. And what’s true in the research is not always true for individual situations. It is important to not give up your home language and remember that it is a long journey which will have its ups and downs.
Here are some ideas for how to boost both high quality exposure and an association of German with fun, pleasure, and your relationship.
Reading together is a key strategy but not reading together as we might traditionally think. It’s all about how you do it and the basic idea is that rather than reading to your child where you read each page and tell the story, you use the books as props to start conversations. So you bring out the book or they pick it and you wait looking expectantly at them. They say something or point to something and you follow, adding in language to what they’re pointing at, describing what they seem to be interested in. Avoid questions like “What’s that?” Better questions are things like “What’s going to happen?” or statements like “I wonder what that felt like” followed by a pause. Tell anecdotes from your own childhood or books you love and have a chat about them. You don’t need to read the book at all! You can also use wordless picture books or silent books to kick-start conversations using books. You can find book suggestions and more tips here.
When they want you to read the story and it’s one that they know well, you can leave a space at the end of the sentence for them to fill in the word or two. You can also make use of a research based approach called Dialogic Reading which has been shown to develop expressive language. You can read all about how to do it here.
The same goes for watching German TV: it needs to be like a prop for conversation and you can use the Dialogic Reading strategies for watching TV together too. (You can read about them here. The reason watching TV doesn’t help language development all that much is that it’s not interactive use of language. Children learn language through interactions with others.
Something else to consider is how you might introduce your child to other German speakers. My colleague Nadja Herkner runs online groups for young children and their parents to increase experience with German. You can find out about them here.
For more ideas, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free e-book with 25 ideas for supporting your home language.
Is it a phase? Well, Colin Baker talks about multilingual language development being like the moon, waxing and waning. And children do go through phases of seeming to ‘prefer’ one over the other. If however, you keep using your home language, then their understanding of the grammar is continuing and their vocabulary keeps growing. It’s good to think about how you respond when your little girl uses English instead of German and to have a range of ideas for things you can do together in German.
What I read so you don’t have to
De Houwer, A. (2015). Harmonious bilingual development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situations. International Journal of Bilingualism. 19 (2): 169-184.
De Houwer, A. An Introduction to Bilingual Development. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Mishina-Mori, S. (2011) A longitudinal analysis of language choice in bilingual children: The role of parental input and interaction. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 3122-3138.
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