If you raise bilingual or multilingual children, you probably start with the ‘one person one language’ (OPOL) method, in order to promote the bilingualism. This can work for the first years of your children, but it might change as soon as your children start going to daycare or school and are exposed to one or more further languages outside home. It becomes even more complicated, when they don’t talk the same languages at school and daycare.
In her book Bilingual Siblings. Language Use in Families, Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert points out that school has a strong effect on language use. From nursery or primary school, children spend more than 40% of their day with their friends.
In fact, multilingual children who were used to speak certain languages within the family, are tempted to change their language use when they start to go to nursery or preschool where often only one of the languages or even another language than those spoken at home, is used. It has to do with peer pressure and the fact that the children have to follow new rules. In some schools – even some international ones! – children are not allowed to talk another language than the one used in school. If the choosen school is monolingual, a multilingual child will feel that using a language that only few people understand, is inappropriate. This pressure increases with the time the children spend in this context, away from home. – The risk is, that the home or minority language is used less frequently at home.
Children are very pragmatic in their language choice. It’s more logic for them, while attending an English school, to discuss school topics in English. They might still follow OPOL while talking to their parents or caregivers, but they probably will opt for another language while talking to their siblings.
Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert asked 105 families to complete an online survey about the language their siblings used together and found out that there is a clear link of school-home language for the siblings. If parents choose a school with one parental language, this is probably not perceived as a “problem” in the family. But if the school language is another one than the ones spoken at home, it can have the negative effect to “suffocate the minority language” (p.65). If now siblings have a particular bound through the minority language (because they share experiences or memories) or “because they appreciate the value of speaking the minority language to communicate with extended family or when visiting the country” (p.66), they will make the effort to avoid a passive use of it at home, i.e. try to use it more often.
If you speak two or more languages within your family, which language will your children choose to communicate among them? And why would they choose one language instead of the other(s)? Two children could easily agree on one of the family languages, but it can also happen that they prefer the daycare or school language. Or that they don’t agree on one language and choose a third or fourth one.
Fact is, that for a multilingual child it is very natural to switch from one language to another. Depending on the context or subject, they will easily switch even without realizing it. Multilingual siblings don’t have only one language in common and they will always alternate among those they know. Some parents feel the pressure to stop their children doing code-switching, but as code-switching is not a sign of linguistic weakness, they shouldn’t worry.
When my twin daugthers were born, I was wondering which language my son would talk to them (he was 3.5 years old at the time). Would he talk Italian or Swissgerman, or maybe Dutch? And what about OPOL then? Shouldn’t siblings apply the OPOL method as well? But he would have to choose either Swissgerman or Italian…
I observed that he sung Italian nursery rhymes and talked Swissgerman to them while telling stories, and did also tell them about his day at the Dutch daycare in Dutch (and sung Dutch songs etc.). He did switch from one language to the other. First I thought that his choice was somehow related to the topics, but it wasn’t. His choice was really random. – I didn’t stop him doing this as it would have been very unnatural for him to choose only one language because his world was made of three languages.
Now, more than 7 years later, my children still share the same languages – English is their fourth language that they use at school – and they switch from one to the other, depending on their mood. – If they still do code-switching? Yes, but I observe that the words they’re switching are more complex. And they often switch from one language to the other during dialogues. Sometimes I ask them to please say the whole sentence in one language, but only if we have time for it, because the most important thing is to keep the conversation going and I have to admit that we have high-speed conversations at our house and all three children love to talk – a lot! And for me this is the best sign that “our” method is working.
What about you? Are you in a similar situation? How did and do your children cope with their multilingualism?
- Challenges and tips for raising bilingual children (nbclatino.com)
- SpanglishBaby: Can bilingualism cause alienation? (nbclatino.com)
- My multilingual journey (expatsincebirth.com)
- Once an OPOL, always an OPOL? (onraisingbilingualchildren.com)
- Bilingual Siblings: Different Language Histories (multilingualliving.com)