Using the “second language” at home: What’s the etiquette?

This post was inspired by a reader question, one that I think may be of interest to many minority language parents. A Greek couple have just moved to the UK with their young son (almost 3-years old). They are being encouraged by the nursery to use English at home with him, to help him “learn English faster” and are wondering what they should do about this. It’s always a tricky thing to deal with – when educators are telling you to do one thing for your child’s good, and you feel that the opposite is better. How do you work around this? Whose responsibility is it to “teach” the second language? How will it affect the minority language if they parents start using the majority language (in this case, English) in the home? Will it confuse the child or help? Here are some things to consider when making these decisions.

Firstly, you must consider the age and development of your child. If he understands that there are two different languages and can discuss this with you (even in a basic way, like “This is cheese in Greek and in English we say cheese.” then they are more able to handle the parents changing language with them. So, you could then offer some sentences or words in Greek and then say them in English too. However, there are two drawbacks to this method. Firstly, it may not work. If the child has the choice to listen in the language they know the best, or try harder in the new language, guess which choice they usually make? Yes, of course, they may just block out the unfamiliar English input and focus on the Greek. You could push the issue, but then you put yourself in a position of creating conflict between your child’s two languages. The second issue is that when parents start using the majority language, they can be setting foot on a slippery slope – as the child gets older and more confident in English, they may stop wanting to use the minority language (Greek) with the parents. Because, after all, the parents started using English with them first…

Another issue to consider is how good the child’s first language development is at the moment. A child who is still in the process of acquiring the first language accurately (this is a life-long process, but the critical years are up until about 4-years old), they need the continued quantity and quality of input provided by the parents. This is absolutely necessary to provide the child with a solid, well-developed “L1″. If the parents start prioritizing the new language, to the detriment of the L1, this can have disastrous consequences for the child.

So, all these would point to the answer being that the parents should not start using English at home. How then, to deal with the issues brought up (and suggestions from) the nursery.
Firstly, you need to let the nursery know that your intentions are to raise your child bilingual which means that Greek is just as important as English. And that, developmentally, your child needs to continue to grow in Greek, which will also help their English grow as well.
Secondly, you can agree, with the nursery staff, on some critical communicative points that you will help your child understand. Pictures around the classroom can be very helpful for children who can’t communicate yet, but need to express certain ideas.
SAM_0746

This is an example of a communication tool that children can use in the classroom before they are verbal in the new language. Nurseries that have non-native speaker children should have a system of helping pre-verbal children to communicate their needs (thanks to the British School of Amsterdam for the photo from their excellent resources).
With parental help to show and talk about these resources in the classroom, the parents can use the L1 – the strongest language – to help children acquire knowledge of classroom routines etc, which they then can learn the new words for more easily.

As children become more aware of their two languages, and able to translate/differentiate, parents can choose to use the majority language at home. They can create “domains of use” in which they use English together with the child, to help them learn some basic skills (turn-taking in games, for example) and vocabulary in English. These should be well-delineated in time and space (we are going to sit at the table every Saturday afternoon and play this game in English) to make sure that the child understands that this is a language-based activity and not a lifestyle change.

The bottom line is that children can learn another language from the “immersion” (or submersion) method, even when they start at later ages. The parents’ main job is to support the growth of the L1 (or mother tongue, or whatever you want to call it!) and by doing so support their child’s cognitive development. If they feel that their child is ready, developmentally, to understand the use of two languages at home (in well-defined situations) then they can choose to do this. They can always support nursery learning by talking about all things nursery-related in the L1, to help the child understand what they are/should be doing while at nursery.
The job of the nursery staff is to provide resources for pre-verbal children to use in the classroom, and to indicate to the parents (via handout or email etc.) what important concepts/routines they want the children to understand in order to be able to participate in class.

And if everybody does their job, then the children will come out as successful bilinguals, which should always be the “end of the road” goal.

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5 responses to “Using the “second language” at home: What’s the etiquette?

  1. Very interesting article. I’d have thought that the more that the minority language is spoken then the better for the child. I don’t think that it is the place for the school or a care giver to provide advice on how to raise children bilingually, unless they are trained in raising children bilingually…and even then it should only be taken as general advice. Parents know their children the best, and aren’t biased towards what’s most convenient for the monolingual teacher / day carer.
    Thankfully my eldest daughter (4) has a school teacher who is monolingual, but very open to the occasional minority language word being spoken every now and then in the class room. Apparently my daughter has even taken to teaching the teacher how to speak it!!

    • I completely agree that the more the minority language is used, the better. Especially up against the English juggernaut, parents have a very short window to grow the minority language as much as possible before the kids start moving towards English. Open-minded caregivers/teachers are a blessing, but I find that they are often most open-minded about higher status languages….

      • Now I feel a little guilty…I should admit that in our case, the English juggernaut (beautiful expression!) is the minor language (against Dutch) ;)

      • Didn’t mean to make you feel guilty! But it is true that generally most people support bilingualism where English is the minority language (hard to argue with the usefulness) but are quicker to negate the benefits of bilingualism with a “lesser” language. Enjoy your high status language – nothing wrong with that!

  2. A study done in the US showed that the children of Spanish-speaking parents were not disadvantaged in school when the parents spoke Spanish at home and not advantaged when the parents spoke English at home, with one notable exception – children whose parents spoke Spanish at home did noticeably better in math. Speaking L1 (mother tongue) is not just about language acquisition, it is also about cognitive development.

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