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Language Systems and Why Your Family Needs It?
Sure, your child may learn another language under chaotic conditions, but most families find that having a fixed language system in the home makes it easier for everyone. It minimizes the child’s tendency to mixing, and is the best way to prevent later refusal to speak the minority language. Here are a few of the more common patterns.

One Person, One Language (OPOL): This means that the parents or caregiver consistently speak only one language each to the child. It is among the most widely used language systems to raise bilingual and multilingual children. Despite its popularity, the method often requires some “language supplement”. Examples are playgroups, visiting family or the country, native speaking nanny or au-pair, etc. Regardless, it is always good for the child to hear the language from more than one person. Just as a reference, researchers suggest that a child needs to hear a language 30% of the waking time to learn to speak with ease. Many tips here on how to add language interaction in the minority language, and even more tips here, particularly for older kids.

Minority Language at Home (mL@H, mLaH, mL@H): Also known as the Foreign Home pattern. With this method everyone speaks the minority language at home, and the majority (or community) language is used with everyone else. The minority language does not have to be the native language of both parents. As a family language system it is probably the most fail safe method to raise truly native speaking children, because the child will hear and interact in the language with both parents consistently from birth until they leave home.

Still, ML@H will require some strong nerves by the parents, since the child may not catch up with his monolingual peers in the majority language until around 5 years of age or when he start school / preschool. It is understandable that parents worry about their child having a disadvantage when starting school, but as soon as the child is surrounded by children speaking the community language, he will quickly catch up. If he has the basics in place, that catch up period is rarely more than 6 months. The risk for complete linguistic isolation, meaning the child learns only the minority language, is typically very small. The reason is simply that it requires a really large community that speaks that particular foreign language to isolate a child completely from the community language. Still, some parents opt to temporarily change to one of them speaking the community language a year or so before school, just to prepare the child for the change. Once the child is in school, they switch back to ML@H.

Other Patterns: Any pattern that works well for your family is a good pattern, of course. Here are a couple of other possible patterns: (1) one language is spoken every day, the other on extended vacations to another country; (2) one language is spoken in a certain location, e.g. if the children attend an immersion program.

It’s true that the more consistent you are, the better and faster your child will learn, but consistency shouldn’t come at the expense of the child or the family. In the long run, what feels most natural to you will work best. Remember, raising a multilingual kid is at least a 4-year commitment to reach basic speaking skills (and obviously, continued exposure for maintenance after that), and the commitment is longer if your goal is full literacy. Circumstances in your family life may change during such an extended period of time. It’s best not to put undue pressure on yourself, but to find a routine that works for you and can be adjusted as your situation changes.

When deciding on a family language system, it is really all about long-term thinking. Which language will be easy vs. difficult to provide interaction — now and in the long term? Because, the language situation is likely to change over time, and so will your child! So, you’ll need to adapt. Here are a few of the factors to take into considerations:

  • Over the first ten years of life, how much is your child likely to hear the different languages? The more balanced you can make that, the better. It does not mean 50/50 during the whole period, but maybe 80/20 initially switching to the reverse 80/20 over time.
  • Are you able to compensate for a lack of minority language during the school years by creating a lot of opportunities to the minority language during early childhood?
  • Are you likely to remain in your current country? If not, think long term and how you can maximize the exposure to the different languages.
  • Can your child get interaction from others than you — playmates, friends, visitors, etc?
  • Can you easily travel to the country of the minority language(s) if your child needs a boost?
Although there are many different flavors of family language system, discovering what works for your family remains the best rule. Here is a list of six examples with a short description of each family situation. It clearly illustrates that although there is a main "language rule," adapting it to fit the specific family requirements and goals is absolutely appropriate. For many more and fascinating examples take a look at our Forum on family language systems.

1: OPOL Plus

This German/Polish couple living in Germany are raising their twins with “three and a half” languages. They use OPOL, with Mom speaking Polish, Dad speaking German, and their au pair speaking Spanish with their boys. The “half language” refers to the fact that the children also hear the parents speaking English to each other since it’s the language they’ve used with each other since they met. They like English because it isn’t the native language of either, so neither have an “unfair advantage” in their communication. However, they don’t actively pursue English as a fourth language for their children. Their goal is native level skills in German and Polish, including literacy. Spanish probably will not go beyond verbal skills, which is fine. They decided not to tackle English at all until it becomes part of the foreign language education within the school system.


2: Partial OPOL

This French speaking Canadian and his Vietnamese wife live in Singapore with their daughter and two sons. His two sons are from a previous marriage and had not been exposed to Vietnamese before. As they were expecting their first child together, Mom wanted to speak Vietnamese to their baby girl. The goal became to achieve full verbal skills in Vietnamese for the girl and passive understanding for the boys, so that they wouldn’t feel left out. Mom now speaks Vietnamese to all of the children, but the boys reply to her in French, which is fine with everyone in the family. Their daughter is just beginning to speak. All children get plenty of the community language, Cantonese, either in school or from their nanny.


3: mL@H

This is an example of a classical mL@home situation. The bilingual family lives in Denmark, although the couple is originally from Greece. Both parents speak Danish very well, but they speak Greek to each other. Therefore, they chose to speak Greek exclusively to their baby. Greek is currently the dominant language for the girl, but they expect plenty of Danish input as soon as she starts daycare. They are adamant about full literacy in Danish, to ensure the best possible opportunities for her. Still, with such a good language foundation in Greek they’d like to eventually achieve literacy skills in Greek as well.


4: OPOL with a twist

This family uses OPOL as a language system with a slight twist, and the two boys in the family get a surprisingly balanced language interaction in all three languages. Mom speaks Spanish, which is the family language, while Dad and Grandma speak Russian. Grandma is also the primary nanny. The family recently moved to Portugal from Spain, so the two boys are already attending school in Portuguese. After their recent move, Dad is thinking about speaking Spanish to them instead, but hasn’t made up his mind yet.


5: A different solution – mL outside H

This American couple are both of Japanese decent and speak some Japanese, but they don’t feel they speak well enough to raise their daughter bilingually on their own. Instead, they opted to send her to a full immersion Japanese preschool. The girl has had sporadic Japanese interaction from her Japanese grandparents, but not enough to develop language skills from them. The parents hope for full literacy skills, but it will depend on if their outside resources are sufficient. If not, they will still be thrilled if their daughter attains verbal language skills in Japanese. In the meantime, the parents are reviving what little Japanese they know so that they can gauge her development and learn some of the songs and games she brings home from preschool.


6: Very mL@H

This UK couple chose a quite advanced trilingual family language system. Dad speaks Iranian (Farsi) to the two boys, although it is not his native tongue any longer. Mom speaks English to them, and the parents speak Iranian to each other in front of the kids. This was a big change since the couple used to only speak English with each other. When they decided they wanted to raise multilingual children, however, it so happened that Iranian was their heritage language but they both felt they spoke it at a non-native level. With such dedication, it is not surprising that they decided to add another language — one more widely used. Having a Spanish speaking au-pair is still a bit of an experiment, since neither parent speaks Spanish themselves. But they hope the boys will take to the language.


Whatever language system you choose, it needs to work well for every member of your family. So, sit down and discuss the goals and options before deciding the best system for you. As you can see, raising multilingual children comes in many varieties and flavors, so adapt the basic language systems to something that fits you, and then try to be consistent.

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