Food for thought – The challenge of balancing 2 minority languages at home

The week-end before last, we picked our daughters up from my mother’s place, where they had spent 2 days in a solely Majority Language (ML) environment, as my mother is a monolingual ML speaker.  It was nice to have a little parental break. And as always when they have been away in an ML environment, I cannot help enjoying to observe their linguistic behaviour upon their return to our minority language (ml) home environment.

My mother told me the girls had behaved well and that they had not argued much, and reported that when they did, they had done so in English!  Needless to say that as much as they drive me up the wall with their petty bickering, the fact they did so in the minority language in a Majority Language environment was music to my ears!

The other morning, I “observed” them at a distance, listening to them playing in English.  And then, it hit me: they always play in English.  It is very rare to overhear them playing together in Spanish at their own initiative.  Had my husband been French, I would have been delighted. However, Spanish being part of who they are as dual citizens, I cannot help but feel a twinge of concern.  After all, I am not British and I never pretended to be. So getting them to speak English is a great achievement, but it cannot be to the detriment of their Spanish identity since there is more at stake than just speaking the most spoken language in the world early.

When reflecting on how English became the dominant ml in my daughters’ inter-communication, I think I have identified 5 factors that played on bringing this situation about:

  1. The time spent with the child – my husband working further away means he will always have less time to spend with the girls.  On a normal weekday, I spend 3 hours with my girls where my husband will get 2 hours at best. Add to that the fact that I work part-time and hence get to spend a whole extra day a week with my kids.
  2. The influence of the parent – Though my daughters always abide by the “no ML at home” rule and only use the 2 minority languages with us, I think they can feel how strict I am about it all.  I am more explicitly authoritative on the topic than my husband is. Hence, they might unconsciously feel the obligation to speak English as it is my ml.
  3. The parent in charge of ml education – In our household, I am the one into ml education.  My husband has never shown any interest, looked up any education websites, read bilingual parenting books (he stopped half-way through the only one he began), purchased activity books, etc…  He happily owns up that it is not his cup of tea. Given each one of us is responsible for his/her ml and that he is very laid-back whilst I am not, I am sure this had a huge impact on the ascendancy of English.
  4. The child-parent bond – It has a huge influence.  For instance, my eldest having always been a Daddy’s girl, she never put Spanish into question as much as she did with English.  Whilst my youngest is a Mummy’s girl and her Spanish lagged behind her other languages until last summer when I insisted on her letting her dad read some of her bedtime stories and I quitted translating Spanish books to English.  My youngest will always use English with her sister, whilst my eldest will use English out of habit but can switch according to the environment.
  5. Proactivity – When discussing with my husband the other day, I highlighted the fact he never handled our media resources.  He never puts Spanish telly or music on for the sole purpose to create an ml background. I am the only one to do so.  And to compensate the resulting imbalance, I alternate ml for these resources; when really Spanish is my husband’s “responsibility”.  To tease him, I told him I have become the “Keeper of Telly and Music at Home” (in reference to Harry Potter and the character of Hagrid the “Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts” 😛 ).  I am also extremely proactive education-wise, teaching to read, supervising activity book work, purchasing audiobooks, putting up captive reading, designing Mystery Words and organising board games nights.  My overbearing proactivity has, I think influenced the strong position of English in our home.
  6. The resources – We have a strong imbalance in our ml books, with about a 85-15% book ratio in favour to English, which is due to my extreme proactivity and husband’s passivity in terms of ml education. Add to that the fact I adore children’s books and had to set myself a reasonable monthly budget to keep it under control.

This ascendency can also be felt as a family.  I have noticed that English is slightly stronger as my daughters usually code-switch to English when they do not know how to say something in Spanish, and rarely the other way round.   We have been noticing this little imbalance for a while now. Though we do not consider it as problematic, at least for now, we have recently started to gently try to restore a bit of equilibrium in our daily bilingual journey:  

  1. As a family, we tend to speak Spanish.  Though when we switched to ml@home each of us parent strongly stuck to our respective ml, over time I have left my natural inclination of switching to Spanish run loose, in an attempt to balance our 2 mls a little more.  
  2. Whenever I purchase ml resources, I try to favour getting them in Spanish.
  3. I also try to favour a Spanish background more.  
  4. I sometimes take over my husband’s role and go over basics (numbers, weekdays, etc…) in Spanish on the school-run or to the childminder’s.
  5. Whenever my husband distractedly lets one of our daughters’ code-switching slip, I chime in and translate to Spanish whatever word or idiom they have said in English.

Now, Spanish has a huge advantage that English does not have in our family.  We have family in Spain, where we travel twice a year, with wherever possible the kids travelling ahead of us or returning after us. We Skype with these relatives and they visit us.  Whilst on a daily basis the balancing out of our 2 mls might be a bit difficult, this human dimension and immersion in Spanish will hopefully help balance out our languages in the long run.

Balancing more than one language at home can be complicated, especially if these are 2 minority languages that cannot be picked up from society, as an imbalance in one language cannot be compensated by a daily external source of input.  It is a subtle game of gauging and balancing on a daily basis. It is hence always interesting to observe a child’s linguistic behaviour and trying to source its origin to be able to work on the balance between these competing languages.  This observation exercise needs to be performed on a regularly basis, not in an obsessive fashion of course, but to be aware of the equilibrium between these languages, and evaluate whether any compensating action needs to be taken to balance them out if needed.  At least, that is the conclusion I come to from our experience… 🙂

What is your experience on balancing out 2 minority languages at home?  Please share it in the Comment section.

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3 Comments

    1. Absolutely! Though media cannot be the corner stone of bilingual education, they have an important part to play! Without brainwashing our kids with hours of screen-time, a little can go a long way as an extra source of input and exposing them to a vocabulary, idioms and syntax we might not use ourselves. ;). Get those movies playing Rebecca! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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