Adjusting your family’s language policy – part 1 (Family Fridays)

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 (Photo via Carissa Rogers via Flickr CC)

Read any book or website on multilingual parenting and one of the first pieces of advice given to new parents is: decide on your family’s language policy.

The second piece of advice? Be consistent. Stick with your plan and get support from your extended family and community.

But, what that new parent might be hard pressed to find is advice on how, why, and when to change the original family language policy.

This brings us to today’s special edition of Family Fridays here on the blog. Normally the Family Friday series is dedicated to one multilingual family each week giving an overview of their family’s language journey (click on the link Families on the right to meet some great folks from around the world!). However, today and next Friday’s posts will be dedicated to five families who, for different reasons and with different results, decided to change their home language plan.

If you and your family find yourselves at a crossroads, considering the possibility of changing your family’s language policy, I hope that you will find encouragement from these five families. Today, I’d like to reintroduce you to Jane from this Family Fridays post and introduce you to Rita Rosenback, author of Bringing up a Bilingual Child.

Jane – 

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What was/is the change? Why the change? 

While living in the United States, French became our home language. It was not the obvious way to go and it did not come naturally. My husband is American and his mother tongue is English. So for several months, we were practicing the one parent-one language policy. We knew we wanted to eventually give more importance to French since we were living in the US, but we did not have a clear plan on how to do that at home. French became the home language after a  three-week vacation in France when we were surrounded with family and friends. My husband came back to the US speaking French to our nine-month old son. Six years later, we moved to France. Now we speak English to both our sons, especially to the youngest one.

We moved right when our youngest turned two and was starting to speak more and more. We knew that once in France, the opportunity to speak and hear English would drastically decrease. We could have returned to the one parent-one language system, but several things made us consider switching totally. I was going to be the person he interacts the most with this year being the stay-at-home parent. This year, in our opinion, was critical. Until he was two, English was limited in his life. French was spoken at daycare, at home, at my work and even 50-50 with our friends. Moving to France was going to lower English to almost nothing. It seemed that I had a year to make sure my youngest got a lot of English before starting school next year.

What has been a challenge since implementing the change?

For my husband, it was almost harder to switch to English even though it is his mother tongue. So we had to make adjustment and go through a very awkward unnatural phase where we were reminding each other to use English.

The whole change was hard for my oldest child. His dominant and preferred language is French. And he feels that he does not know how to speak in English. He understands it completely and does not mind (anymore) that we do speak in English but he won’t do so himself. It has been hard to hear him struggling in English. Also hard, to accept that it’s the way it is for now.

An other difficulty is the second guessing. In my case, I switched to speaking English to my youngest one early on. I started doing it before we left little by little. However, recently, there have been a few moments when I was hearing myself speaking or looking for a word or its pronunciation. Then, I would think, What am I doing? The other day, he asked me what was “I love you” in French. I realized that I had never said it to him in French.

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What has improved, been the benefits for your family?

Hearing my younger son speak in English and having fun with both languages has been my reward. I feel like I have made the best choice in his case and in the long run, for my oldest son too. It is going to be interesting this summer because we get to have the visit of the American family (grandparents, cousin). I am pretty sure that if we had not switched our language policy at home, considering that their dominant language is French, my sons would be struggling even more with English. The switch also brought up a lot of questions. We had to explain to the older one why it was important for us to do this switch. It allowed us to talk about our feelings and bicultural backgrounds even more.

Advice for other multilingual families in the same situation?

My first piece advice would be to check for resources in your community. Right when we arrived in France, we became members of an Anglophone organization. We made a few connections that help us use our adult English outside of home. It keeps us close to some cultural events and put our kids in a monolingual situation (or close enough).

Educate yourself about what bilingualism is. For example, code switching. People might say, it’s bad, you need to stick to one language. Why? That’s how a bilingual brain works when in a bilingual situation. So at home, we speak both because we are both, but when we spend time with my parents, we only speak French and all is good.

My son’s English might become dormant for a while because who knows. I can’t force him to speak a language he is not comfortable with and don’t feel the need to (at least with us). I have to accept that. I can change which language I use to talk to them, but I can’t expect the same from them.

Rita – 

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What was/is the change? Why?

When our first daughter was born, her father (my ex-husband) did not yet speak Finnish (we lived in Finland), so we decided to do OPOL with him speaking Punjabi and I spoke Finnish (I am fairly balance Swedish/Finnish bilingual). However, I wanted her to attend a Swedish-speaking school, so decided to switch to speaking Swedish with her when she was five (kids start school at seven in Finland, so I had time).

The second time we had to adjust was when we moved to England, and we no longer had any daily support for neither Swedish nor Finnish except from myself. So in a way, we became a two-minority-languages-at-home family.

What has been a challenge since implementing the change?

The change itself was a lot harder than I thought it would be – I wrote about it in this post. Also, since I had changed to speaking Swedish with my older daughter, when our second daughter was born (seven years between them), she did not get the chance to learn Finnish from me.

A lot less exposure both to Finnish and Swedish, so I had to work on that. At the same time, our younger daughter who was only six when we moved, didn’t know any English, so also had to support her with English.

What has improved, been the benefits for your family?

My elder daughter became fluent in three languages and gained a fourth when we moved to England. Both daughters can communicate with the extended family on both sides. The move gave both girls an additional language, which they now are fully fluent in.

Advice for other multilingual families in the same situation?

A change in the family language strategy is not an easy task to undertake. Both parents need to discuss the change and agree on how to go ahead, if possible get other family members involved in helping with the language exposure. It is possible to introduce a language at a later stage to your child, you haven’t missed the boat, but be prepared for more effort the older your child is. (I have written about making and adjusting a Family Language Plan in my book.)

Merci, tack, and kiitos to Jane and Rita for sharing how they and their families adjusted in their home language plan! Stay tuned for next week’s part 2.

6 thoughts on “Adjusting your family’s language policy – part 1 (Family Fridays)

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