Before Vanessa started preschool a couple of months after she turned two, I often wondered how she was going to survive for four hours surrounded solely by English. I worried that others would think she had no manners because even though she already understood the concept of “gracias” and “por favor,” she knew nothing about “thanks” and “please.” I explained the situation to her teachers and they reassured me everything would be fine. You see, up until then, her life had only revolved around Spanish.
To be honest, before she was born, we didn’t really give much thought to what method we’d use to raise our daughter bilingual. I mean, both my husband and I knew we were going to speak to her only in Spanish because she’d learn English in school. The same method had worked in the past with my husband’s son who is now a bilingual teenager. Truth be told, I didn’t even know there was a name for the method we were using…
Minority Language at Home (mL@H)
When I started doing research for SpanglishBaby, I found out it’s called the Minority Language at Home or mL@H. This method is self-explanatory, but it’s important to point out that neither you nor your partner have to be native speakers of the minority language you’ll be using exclusively at home. In other words, as long as you are both fluent in the minority language – which in this country is anything other than English – this method will work for you.
I have a bilingual (Spanish/English) friend who lives in the Northeast and has been using this method with her children aged 8 and 9 from the beginning. They are bilingual alright, but it has been a difficult road since they live in an area with virtually no Hispanic community. This means that the only Spanish her kids get is at home from her, her husband and the nanny. The result: even though her kids are bilingual, the truth is they speak English most of their waking hours. Her strategy has been to be as strict as possible about talking to them exclusively in Spanish. In fact, many times her kids will address her in English and she’ll respond by asking them to repeat it in Spanish.
One Parent – One Language (OPOL)
The most popular system in both Europe and Canada is the one in which one parent speaks one language and the other one speaks another. There are several combinations of this method. For example, each parent speaks their own native language which is a minority language and the majority language is learned outside the home. In this case, the child would grow up with three languages. Another option is that the father speaks the majority language and the mother the minority one. Based on absolutely no scientific evidence but on my own observations of my daughter’s bilingual playgroup, it seems as if the latter example is the most common one.
Another friend of mine who has been using OPOL – although not exclusively – since her son was born two years ago, explains some of the problems she’s encountered with this method. “Ideally, I’d never speak to him in English, but for some reason, when my husband is home, I feel a little weird, as if I am excluding him from our conversation.” So, she ends up speaking in English. Actually this is a very common worry and a subject of which we’ll write about in posts to come.
Time and Place (T&P)
This type of method is what’s most often used at schools with bilingual programs. For example, the minority language is used in the morning and the majority language in the afternoon. Or, like in the bilingual school I attended, some subjects – such as math or science – are in the minority language one school year and in the majority language the next. This strategy refers less to family life than the other two.
From what I gather, none of these methods seem to be fail-proof and although consistency is important, flexibility is even more so. Even if you start with one method, who’s to say that a few months down the road you realize another method might work better for your family or for your current situation?
What method do you use to raise your kids bilingual? What problems have you encountered with the method you’ve chosen?
I was raised in Latin America with the OPOL method – my mom spoke to me in Spanish and my dad in English. I am fluent in both but the balance is definitely tipped towards English because my schooling and professional life have mostly been in English. My husband and I are now raising twins in Paraguay and using the OPOL method as well. At first it was very awkward for me to speak to our kids in Spanish but after a few months of forcing myself to do so it now feels strange to speak to them in English. However I know once we are back in the US it will be a challenge to stick to it unless we live in an area where there are many Spanish speakers.
So awesome what you’re doing for your twins!
You’re right, it’ll definitely be a challenge once you return to the US, but if they already have a base in Spanish, it shouldn’t be impossible.
Best of luck!
Im interested in feedback & discussion in being strict/consistent yet flexible: how do you handle situations such as being surrounded by extended family who all speak the other language than what you are responsible for using with your children (and you want everyone to interact in the conversation) or when you’re hanging out with/supervising play with other children who are monolingual in the other language?
Great, great questions, Melissa. I can only speak from experience.
Everybody in my family, including my extended family, is pretty much aware I only speak Spanish to my children. My son is only 2, so it’s not like he can really interact a lot anyway. My daughter, who is 5, is bilingual, so even though I speak Spanish to her and she speaks Spanish to me, she can obviously interact in English with those who don’t speak Spanish.
In terms of what to do when playing or supervising monolingual children, I usually continue speaking Spanish to my daughter and then repeat what I said – if it concerns everybody – in English. If I’m saying something that only concerns my daughter, then I don’t even bother translating. I’ve never had a problem, but that’s probably because it’s pretty clear from the get-go that only talk to my daughter in Spanish.
Having said that, though, I won’t deny that some times, I break the rules. And, I guess, that’s what is meant by being flexible.
I hope this helps…
I don’t have much to say about my experience, since I’m just beginning. I am endeavoring to use OPOL with my 3-month old son. Two issues are arising so far:
1) Perhaps relates to what Melissa said above – I am struggling with speaking to my son in Spanish around friends and family members who don’t speak it, for concern of “excluding” them, and;
2) I am consistent in my use of Spanish. My husband has agreed to take the English part…but when he hears me speaking in Spanish, he slips into it as well (we both speak both languages). Worried this will confuse our son, and/or defeat the OPOL effort.
Hi Jen! Congratulations on raising your son bilingual! He’s a lucky boy!
Regarding your two issues:
1) This is a very common concern. I don’t really have an answer for you except to say that your son is just a baby, so it would be kind of weird for people to feel left out when you’re talking to him because, really, it’s not like you’re having full-blown back and forth conversations with him. In fact, this is a great time for others, like friends and family members, to pick up a few basic words in Spanish because, in the end, that’s mostly what’ll you’ll be using with your son.
2) Just curious, if your husband also speaks Spanish, how come you’re using the OPOL method? Nothing wrong with it, but I’ve normally assumed that when the OPOL method is used it’s because only one of the parents speaks the minority language or they both speak different minority languages… Maybe yours is a good question for our experts!
Although I also speak Spanish, we chose OPOL and I started speaking to our son all in English. I don’t regret that, since English is all his grandparents on my side can speak. BUT starting around when he was 2-1/2, although he still understands both languages, we started noticing that English was really dominating in what HE spoke. I started speaking to him a lot more in Spanish and it has helped. But, by now at age 3-1/2 it is really seeming like a dual-language school is going to be probably the only way he gets to really being bilingual and fully capable in Spanish.
His older siblings and cousins speak amongst themselves in English, his tastes in books & tv are going beyond the Spanish-only options, and as he grows he is more out and about with activities in English at the zoo, at a museum, at a concert for families at the park, at the Y, everywhere you go. I thought we would get more advantage toward Spanish because our son is with his dad & aunt in Spanish all day while I am at work, we live in a very heavily hispanic area, and many of the older relatives don’t speak English. But still, English is just taking over.
First of all, I have found that my family (white, non-hispanic) are even more supportive and enthusiastic about the child being bilingual, than my husband’s (all hispanic) side. And to be honest a friend of mine who can’t handle me speaking to my son briefly in Spanish without being paranoid is not the kind of friend I need. Truly it is even rather obvious to anyone what I meant by yelling out “sientate en la silla” when we came around the corner and he was standing on his chair. If anything long & involved happens, I tell a short summary to the other adult, if they’re interested, but to be honest that is not different from any other 3 year old having a meltdown about some weird thing (they do that!) and requiring some translation from mom for visitors to understand what is going on.
Secondly, about confusing the languages, I worry about this too, but we literally cannot prevent our son from hearing a mish-mash on a daily basis, due to our entire crew of Spanish speakers, other than my husband, no matter what we say constantly peppering their Spanish with (incorrect) “English” words & phrases, and my stepkids’ mom insists on speaking with her kids entirely in very incorrect broken English which you can actually really hear in the way they talk themselves. I believe this is not making my son’s task any easier and he might be a bit older than usual before he stops saying things like “I throwed it” (just repeating what he hears).
Not only that, there are a huge number of “Indio” words that he is hearing on a daily basis which seem like Spanish but actually wouldn’t be understood by anyone not from that very specific region of my husband’s family (not even other people from the same country).
His father and I do insist on staying within 1 language at a time when WE speak, he stays with Castilian/Spanish words, and we spend a lot of time with our son on reading and other “pure” language examples. And he is definitely going to a dual-language school if we possibly can. This should help, and I cringe with the things I hear people saying around him, but I just try to remember this is a long term project.
When it comes to Spanglish words that he says, at this age I work on only one word at a time with him and find that once it’s corrected, he never goes back. When he gets a bit older I’ll be doing with him like my mom did with me, training me never to say “ain’t” or a million other things. From my teenage years I could speak perfectly in “standard English” but I can still speak “Hillbilly” anytime as I “have a mind to” LOL. So I “figger” my son can figure this out too, in time!
To clarify, when I say his father and I stay within 1 language at a time, I mean 1 sentence in 1 language at a time! We do not smash words together from 2 languages into 1 sentence or use Spanglish words.
I believe it’s not at all confusing to hear one person speak in Spanish and the other person reply in English, when you understand both! Our son has clearly understood both, from the beginning. So this is not confusing for him.
The wrong things I hear my son repeating are things he heard mushed all together from people not speaking correctly, or mixing, not things his dad or I say.
I found your post very useful and I found it amazing that there are names for the methods we use since i don’t consider them methods but I think they are natural from each family.
Anyway, I was thinking if I can use part of this material for publishing in my blog. I have a bilingual blog about how to make our kids embrace Spanish as a complete language and a follower just asked me about education. Please let me know if I can translate parts of it and of course I will give the source of the original information, which will be this post.
I taught in a Montessori 3-6 YO classroom for some time. Our method was to encourage the parents, often English learners themselves (who communicated with us in English to help strengthen their skills,) to speak their mother language at home, while we used English at school, giving the children both languages. This works very well. In a couple of cases, Mom spoke one language, Dad spoke another, then we spoke English at school. In these cases, the children took slightly longer to speak, but, when they did, they were fluent in all three languages.
I face the same challenge as you do. My daughter is 6 and my son is 3. They are both fully bilingual and since they were born, the only language that we spoke at home was always Spanish. Therefore, it was their primarily language. However, last year when my daughter started kindergarten it become a real challenge to keep everything in Spanish. She came home after spending 8 hours, talking, singing, playing and breathing English. So she made a switch, and today I think English has became her main language. I am sad about it but I can understand it, as long as her Spanish is still impeccable.
Things get worst when they start reading and writing because, if we want to really make them bilingual, then we need to run the extra mile and help them at home even more. Talking is just not enough, you have to read, listen to music and play in Spanish. Not an easy job, but we can do it.
It has became such a challenge for me, that a few weeks ago I started a blog about my journey on how to make my kids embrace Spanish. If you are interested, you can follow me at:
Suerte a todas!
I started using the OPAL method a few months ago with my daughter who is now 4. She is not fully bilingual yet, but has made progress. When she doesn’t understand me in Spanish I use English, but say what I have to say on both languages.
Sorry about that, it submitted the comment before I had a chance to give it!
As some of the other respondents have said, it gets more difficult to maintain other languages once the children are at school and immersed in so many hours of reading, writing and speaking another language. And having a sibling also makes a great difference, because they tend to speak the dominant language to each other, and you can’t impose anything else on them!
We used OPOL before our children started school – my husband spoke Greek, I spoke Romanian, while we lived in the UK and they attended English nurseries. This worked pretty well, they had very good accents in all three languages and at about the age of 4-5 my elder son was indistinguishable from a native Romanian speaker. After they started school, they started replying in English to us, although they would switch quickly back to Greek and Romanian when we were visiting relatives there (or when they came to visit). Now we have moved to France and they have started French school, and we have even more of a dilemma. But we know we will be moving back to the UK at some point and that they need to continue their schooling in English. Should we insist on our native languages, at the risk of confusing them even more? Should we revert to English, for fear that they will forget it or not keep it up at a sufficiently good level to enable them to reintegrate into English schools? Or should we use as much French as possible to help them to learn it quickly?
I’m not sure, but have a suspicion even in France there is a “cool” factor for kids, and lots of media content available, in English. If nothing else, tons of stuf is on the internet that they would love consuming via their own ipad or “new” used laptop. If you will be returning to the UK within a relatively short time, some limited exposure like that could well be enough. Here in Houston we have an entire high school in our neighborhood where the entire student body are very recent immigrants, and year after year a high percentage of students are admitted to every kind of university including the most prestigious, much higher than other schools in the area (so they are acing their entrance exams — in English — even compared to native born students). My point is even older kids can get up to speed really quickly once immersed in a language. You don’t want it to get completely rusty but you can always do little spot checks with them from time to time, for example by asking them to write something in English for you, and if they seem to be falling way behind, then go to beefing up their English. In any case I would hate to see either Greek or Romanian being given a back seat in your home, if it’s not absolutely necessary, because it seems to me there are more easily other opportunities for English, not just now but throughout their lives, whereas a quality level of Greek or Romanian could be harder to achieve any other way than at home with you now.
Thank you, Beth, this has given me some great food for thought. You’re right, English is always easy to pick up and maintain wherever you are in the world. Just today I met with a former classmate of mine from university who travelled all over the world with her children when they were younger – and guess what, they’ve forgotten most of those languages that they were immersed in back then. But I am sure that if they did go back there, they would find it easier to relearn them than someone who had never been exposed to them before.
I have that problem in which I don’t speak enough Spanish to my child because my husband only speaks English and I would like us all to be in included in the conversation. When I’m around my mom however he only hears us speak Spanish. This is very hard to do!
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