Anniversary Post: 4 Years After Changing Language Strategy

We are slowly approaching the 4th anniversary since our family switched from an OPOL approach with the ML as family communication language, to a ml@home  strategy, with each parent using a different minority language (ml) but no Majority Language (ML) allowed home.  This was a big turn in our trilingual adventure, so much so it has given its name to this blog. 😉

The primary aim of this blog is to share tips in raising bilingual kids and giving food for thought, not to keep a diary of our bilingual journey as a family.  However, it feels like such a huge step from which much food for thought can be derived.  Hence today, I feel the need to dedicate this post to this home language strategy change, the lessons learnt and to share with you where we are standing right now.

What was it like 4 years ago?

To assess our current situation, we need a reminder of where we were standing 4 years ago.

Having read nothing about bilingual education, we had been using One Person One Language (OPOL) from our eldest’s birth, 8 years ago.

My Spanish husband spoke Spanish to her, I English, and we used French (the ML) as the family communication language.    Our aim was to raise her  as an active trilingual and triliterate child.

4 years ago, we came to the conclusion it was a disastrous strategy.  Our eldest had perfectly understood that since both of us parents spoke the ML, there was no need to bother using the other 2 languages.  She was a passive trilingual.  She would systematically answer in French.  Since starting nursery school, the few ml words she used had slowly been replaced by their ML equivalent. Given my eldest had a stronger relationship with her dad, and maybe because of the trips to Spain twice a year, she was more disposed to make efforts with Spanish.  But she hardly ever uttered a word in English. I got to the point of despair and on the verge of throwing in the towel with English.  As for Spanish, we could not afford giving up as it is her heritage language and she needs to be able to communicate with her grandparents.

Our youngest daughter was a newborn back then, and we felt that if we did not do something, she would follow in her big sister’s passive trail, and our trilingual journey would come to an end. 

Thanks to the inspiring Bilingual Monkeys blog, and it’s amazing spin-off forum, the Bilingual Zoo, I discovered our flaw (the lack of “need” to use the mls in my eldest, 1 of the 2 cumulative pillars to bilingual education, the other one being exposure).  Since all of us spoke the same 3 languages, we decided to switch to ml@home (Spanish and English) with a ban on the ML.  To help in this change, we used what I now call the “Flag Technique”.

What does our home look like today?

Today, as you are about to walk through our main door, you will notice the 2 ml flags are still proudly stuck to our door.  The girls know that French is not allowed home.  So far, it seems an undisputed rule. 

They rarely use ML for fear of Mummy’s “dark look”.  They will only utter an ML word in a sentence if they do not know its ml word, in which case I repeat what they said with a slight emphasis on the ml translation of that word.  More often than not, they will repeat that ml word as an acknowledgment of them learning it.

This ban has given rise to a funny situation where, one Christmas, the little one played tell-tale on her sister who was singing along “The first Noel” with their music player in their bedroom.  The little one did not know the ML word “Noel” also exists in English. 🙂

We only tolerate the ML in clearly identified situations:

  1. For school homework purposes – I do try to explain ML homework in ml though sometimes it is easier to do it in ML (e.g: reading comprehension exercises).
  2. To improve their ML literacy skills – I do tolerate a few ML books for my eldest on the condition she balances her reading in all 3 languages.  There was a time, at the beginning of this tolerance, when she would only read in the ML and I had to withdraw all ML books.  She now knows this and watches out she reads in her mls too.  
  3. ML guests at home
  4. Phone calls from ML monolinguals
  5. Working from home – that is the result of the lockdown.  The girls have heard their dad and me speak a lot of ML on professional calls.

Since the lockdown, working from home full-time has let some ML back in our home.  Nevertheless, I believe our home is still an ml haven

  • There still are no ML prints around, but for a pair of cushions that I closely keep an eye on so the prints always face out of sight. 😉  
  • The ML books’ spines are still turned inwards on our shelves. 
  • Still ml media only, in spite of my eldest asking why on earth we are watching Spanish telly. 
  • The girls have taken a HUGE liking to Spotify.  This is the huge reward of my ml audio-background campaign
  • When searching for cartoons on YouTube Kids or Netflix, they immediately discard anything in the ML as they know it is a no go.

What has this language strategy switch taught us?

  1. Humility – The very first thing it taught me,which I learnt the hard way.  Raised as a trilingual kid myself, I certainly never expected to raise trilingual to be that challenging.  
  2. Read a lot on bilingual education – There is not a single way to raise bilingual and there is a lot more to it than you might have thought.  Read up on the topic by bilingualism experts but also by other parents raising bilingual.
  3. Bilingual education is all about trial and error As Veronika of so beautifully quoted C.S Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”.  That is exactly what we did.  Changing language strategy half-way through is possible when you find the way to do so that works for your family.
  4. Find what will work for your family – Some children like my eldest need to be pushed outside their comfort zone (within reason of course!). Observe your child and your family.  Analyse your personalities and language strategy. Take time to reflect.  
  5. Perseverance and creativity are your allies – It taught me to never give up, but instead to think outside the box. 
  6. To be part of the online bilingual parenting community.  It will provide you with inspiration and support when you feel down. Bilingual parenting forums, blogs and social network accounts have been my life-line.  And in turn, I have become active to be able to help other struggling parents.  Together, we help push each other through the bumps of the journey.

What are the downsides to this switch?

Obviously having to get to the extreme of banning one’s own mother-tongue.  Yes, it does make me feel a bit sad to have to come to that point, though I do not regret the result reaped from it.  For now, I would not change it, as I am far too pleased with the result and far too scared of the consequences of introducing the ML in our home again.  Sadly, experience has shown me the ML is a kind of bad weed that stifles the other plants (mls), preventing them from blooming.

Speaking the ML at home has become some sort of taboo.  It is something I do not like, however I expect that as my girls grow they will start understanding that it is not a taboo but simply the expectation that they must make the effort to use their 2 ml.

At the moment, this taboo might make the ML attractive to my eldest because it is forbidden.  It is unclear whether as she grows this phenomenon might wear off or on the contrary.  Let’s hope that as she matures and understands the stakes in speaking 3 languages, a balance might be struck.

A final downside to having the ML out of our home is the difficulty to check on my daughters’ ML level.  I rely a lot on their school and my ML family for this.

All in all, we do not regret this switch because it is so far what works for us.  If you too, you are at a stage where you need to change language strategy, do not be scared.  If what you have does not work, the only way is moving forward.  And through trial and error, you will hopefully find your own individual path. 🙂

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