Is ‘one parent, one language’ the gold standard for bilingual families?

One most popular, if not the most popular, ‘method’ for rasing bilingual children is ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL). Generally speaking it’s important to be consistent with the language in which one speaks to a child, especially when children are just beginning to talk – ie. Mum speaks Spanish, Dad English.

It means the child learns to distinguish between the languages spoken at home, and out in the real world. It’s a method that, broadly, we’ve followed with our daughter. Even at age two and a half we clearly notice that she uses much more Spanish in Spnish environments, much more English in English ones.

Don't negate vocabluary

Reinforcing the ‘correctness’ of vocabluary in the other language can be beneficial.

Consistency is important to know where they are with their language. However, there are times when deviating from the rule if the other parent is at least partially skilled in both languages. Say for example, the child is asking/telling you ‘es una fresa?’ (it’s a strawberry) it’s probably better to answer, ‘Si, es una fresa. In English it’s a strawberry. Fresa en espanol. Strawberry in English’.

Doing this does not negate the original utterance (simply saying it’s a strawberry might leave the child thinking they were mistaken). It reinforces it.

There are other situations were a modest deviation from the one parent, one language rule can be helpful and not a hinderance. In some families parents may communicate in just one language all the time. In others they may effectively mix and match between to languages. It generally isn’t important to the child which language or languages parents are speaking to one another. There is certainly no reason to standardise a language when speaking in front of the children. In fact, it’s probably helpful if ‘family discussions’ can and do take part in either language at different times as this means one language is not relegated to second-class status.

Tower of Babel

Children are naturally skilled at differentiating between different languages. Many societies are naturally multilingual. Childrens’ brains don’t explode.

Sometimes of course a child just simply understands a concept better in the other language and for the sake of getting them to get the message the other parent may switch languages. This is not going to do much harm. Probably less harm than the children sticking their fingers in an electrical socket or running into a busy road!

What’s more important for the child’s language development is plenty of quality interaction with parent that speaks language one and the parent that speaks language two. That’s where it really makes a difference and where consistency helps, especially when out and about. The parents should continue speaking their own language to the child, otherwise one language risks being relegated to the ‘wierd home language’.

While you will read a lot of information about the terrible dangers of ‘language’ mixing, don’t sweat it. In some multilingual societies languages are mixed and blended and contorted into a huge cacophony and children still manage to cope just fine. The one parent one language rule is a good rule of thumb, a good foundation or starting point, but you’ll soon learn works for you in your own unqiue family setting. Good luck!

Top tips for happy bilingual kids

When I started on my bilingual family trip, I did some reading about bilingualism and bilingual family. One of the things that really surprised me at the time was how the many articles of information written by the “so called experts” and parents quoting those experts made free use of the term “bilingual”. Let’s be clear on something, a person like me who speaks only one native language and a second foreign language well is bilingual, a child who has being brought up with two mother tongues is bilingual, yes, of course, if we take the term “bilingual” as meaning “two languages”. However, it’s plainly obvious that their bilingualism is inherently different. I will use the term bilingual kids here to mean children who speak two mother tongues. [Read more...]

The active, communicative toddler: wa-was and doggies

Over the last few months our daughter has come along wonderfully, she is outgoing and communicative. I know that most of you, bilingual parents, will be fed up with hearing the same song “don’t worry, your child will be a late talker, because s/he is bilingual, but it’s normal.” Well, guess what, of all the bilingual families I’ve met in the last two years through my daughter’s playgroups and people I knew before, I’ve only really met two children who were “late talkers”. It is debatable if these children were late talkers because they were bilingual, or just because they would have been late talkers anyway. So far, it is difficult to know, as for a proper research you would need twins or maybe a time machine so you could analyse one kid as a monolingual speaker and then go back in time and make the same kid bilingual… It is such a complicated issue, because there are so many factors that would affect a child’s development, like development in pregnancy, diet, illnesses and environment among others. So, sometimes I am really surprised at the ability of people to affirm something so far fetched as “your kid will talk late because he´s bilingual” when they actually don’t really have a clue of what they’re talking about… it is like Chinese whispers, like those damned Chinese whispers apparently based on psychological research that caused that many kids born in the 70s and 80s lost out on their family heritage because well-meaning family and friends decided that learning two languages would be detrimental to their development. [Read more...]

Michael Gove to put languages centre stage with English Baccalaureate?

UK Education Minister Michael Gove has suggested plans to create what he calls an ‘English baccalaureate’. It will be a certificate awarded to pupils who pass five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher and must including English, maths, science, a humanties subject and, significantly, a foreign language.

His idea intention is to encourage student to take a broad range of subjects and to firm up traditional ‘solid’ subjects, which have allegedly been downplayed at GCSE and A Level as schools have sought to encourage students into easier options more likely to yield higher grades and make exam tables look good. Science and languages have been especially badly hit as students see that as harder graft and don’t wish to jeopardise their chances of landing enough grades to progress to the next level.

Languages could be given higher priority by the government.

Michael Gove is a fan of the popular International Baccalaureate, an alternative qualification to A Levels that is offered by more and more schools and sixth form colleges.

To my mind it’s a step in the right direction. Pupils at 16 should have a broad education and not be prematurely specialised. Compulsory languages should never have been dropped by the last government. However, it’s not really a true baccalaureate in the continental mould, more a why to shoehorn the existing exam into a fresh idea that it doesn’t really fit. It allows an el cheapo quick fix with a new buzzword but does nothing to tackle falling standards, rapid grade inflation, and the underachievement of boys nor will it tackle the low standards of literacy among students who have achieved high grades. It’ll be the same old GCSEs with students pushed a little harder to ensure a broad mix – something many schools do anyway, especially with brighter pupils.

Gove, then, does not appear to want to tackle the English exam system head on and introduce real reform. However, the English baccalaureate will place languages back on the agenda in mainstream education, and schools, now faced with putting all students through a language GCSE will want to channel more resources into the subjects. That can only be a good thing.

Confessions of a monolingual Brit

Flying the flag for monolingualism?

I’d never learned a foreign language until I started French at 11 years old. My Mother spoke both English and Welsh but had never taught me the celtic language, although she had helped me to read and write in English from a young age.

British monolingualism

Most people would love to learn another language to full fluency.

My introduction to French was not a happy one. The teacher, a French native, seemed to quickly latch on to the fact that a handful to children in the class had attended a local Catholic private school before attending my state comprehensive and already knew some French. It felt as if she was teaching to their higher level and I was quickly left behind and assumed I had no ability in the subject. I was of the first generation where very little English grammar is taught to students, and although I knew my way around a verb, a noun and an adjective, it all seemed more complex in French.

Even so, I liked the subject far more than German, which I began at the same time. The school did not have a culture of trying to push students forward. You just existed at the level to which you naturally settled – high flyer, middler or struggler. As a poor, humble 11 year old from the sticks that had barely met anyone from the North let alone another country, France seemed a remote and ultimately meaningless place and no one was really selling it to me.

When it came to GCSEs the school was very keen on every student taking a modern language so I naturally took French, despite being at a much lower level than I was in the humanities or sciences. My GCSE teacher, a Scot, was a revelation and, for a short time, I suddenly became enthusiastic for learning a language, although as I felt so far behind was not up for the hard graft needed to get back on track and only ended up with a poor grade (possibly made a grade worse by severe hayfever during the exam, to offer a feeble excuse).

In adulthood I toyed with learning other languages, usually spurred on by a foreign friend or enjoying the cinema of a given nation or culture but it was only meeting my future Spanish wife that I managed to finally pick up a language to an intermediate proficiency.

I attended a two week intensive Spanish course at one of the many private language schools in Madrid and was amazed just how fast you can absorb fresh knowledge. The ‘intermediate level’ course wasn’t expensive but the two young tutors were skilled, professional teachers that seemed to live and breathe the language and could communicate enthusiasm as well as complex conjugations.

The experience made me wonder why language learning seemed so hard in school? How can it be possible to attend lessons at school for five years and still have huge craters in your knowledge? Why is language learning such a turn off for so many kids at school, with fewer students taking modern language GCSEs and A Levels at a time when so many adults are keen to learn, with huge sales of language learning books and software, and good language tutors in constant demand?

Anyway, with a bilingual baby bouncing through her first year, I probably need a fresh kick up the backside to take my Spanish to the next level. Lidia’s family do not speak English at all, so it’s my Spanish or nothing. I wouldn’t want mother and daughter to have a top secret special language in which to discuss Papa.

Learning versus acquiring

In my opinion when you are talking to your child in a foreign language they are  not learning it,  but you are not teaching them. I would like to expand no a bit on this.
[Read more...]

Homeschooling a bilingual child?

A few weeks back we attened a freecomony.com talk on home schooling. Both of us have, for various reasons, become deeply sceptical of the state education system both in terms of its quality and ideological agendas so were intriguigded to
learn more. We had both been influenced by alternative views of education such as ‘unschooling’ and the books of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto.

[Read more...]

Why I wanted to bring up my child bilingual

I moved to England a few years ago, I am originally from Spain. I never planned to marry here, and have children. But you can’t plan love and life sometimes happens to you.

As I am a bilingual parent myself, or almost bilingual, it makes sense to pass on this skill on to my children. Spanish is my native tongue, and I speak English to a high standard. I always liked learning languages, I started studying English in school when I was eleven years old, and then I continued at university.

After years of grammar drills, conversation exchanges and sitting down to learn long lists of vocabulary, it is quite disheartening to find out that it is actually quite difficult to understand anything at all when you actually talk to a native speaker. In my first long stay abroad, I spent a year in Ireland, I improved my conversation skills a lot. I still remember the first day I landed in Dublin, the father of my host family came to pick me up from the airport, and it was a shock to find out I could not understand a single word he was saying, after 10 years of English lessons.

This is not uncommon, it is quite easy to learn to read and write a language, but the hard bit are the sounds!

Living abroad in a bilingual household, it does make sense to help my child to become conversant with two languages. English she is going to learn anyway, as she will live in England, immersed in the language. Spanish she will learn from me, and she will need it to communicate with her Spanish family. It will be more difficult as she will not have a “Spanish” society around her, but that’s where my input and effort will have to take on their role.

I also speak French fluently, although it’s not my native language, and I don’t speak it as well as English. But it was also very hard for me learning it, it took me years of effort, trips abroad and hard-core grammar drills. I wanted to save my child from going through the same struggle, so I decided to pass this language on to my daughter as she grows up.

Now, lots of people have said to me that it may be a good idea to teach her (teach is not the right word here, but I will get to that later) Spanish as it’s my native tongue and the language of my family. They said something about it close to your heart… but most people have tried to discourage me from also “teaching” her French. Apparently, as it’s not my native tongue, I will not feel it close to my “heart”, whatever that means. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching my daughter a language which is not my native language:

Disadvantages.

She will pick up a foreign accent, she may well pick up wrong grammar as I’m not a native speaker, she will not have family to speak it with, apparently (so I’m told) there is no “feeling” for the language…

Advantages

Better to speak French with a foreign accent than no French at all, you also pick up wrong grammar from teachers at school but it’s easier to polish it if you have a good grounding and you can then communicate with native speakers, read and watch telly/listen to radio, teachers in school are not necessarily native speakers so if she learns from a tender age at home she will not have to learn grammar/vocabulary at school,

So, basically if I “teach” or rather talk to my daughter in French from a very tender age (read from birth), I will end up with a child who speaks French with a strong Spanish/English accent, who can understand TV/radio and generally native speakers, who will be able to read French books independently and therefore improve her vocabulary/grammar. It’s terrible I know, speaking French with a foreign accent and making mistakes… of course in England there aren’t any people working in all types of jobs, from business to education who after twenty odd years in the country still have a strong accent… it’s a crime having a foreign accent, isn’t it? To be fair, I know quite a few bilingual kids in England, offspring of bilingual parents who speak fluently their parents’ language but with a strong foreign accent! So, what’s the problem?

In my next posts, I will be writing about what methods and strategies I want to use, and also why I think that the term “teach” a language shouldn’t be used when bringing up bilingual children.