OPOL: The minority language dilemma

I was single-parenting last week, with my husband on a week-long work trip, and started thinking about being the minority language parent, or the working parent. I’ll be completely honest, in our house we don’t have to work very hard to ensure adequate input of both our languages. I speak to the kids in French (mostly) and my husband in English, they go to school in French, and the language of our greater circle is English. So, without much effort from us, the children get enough French and English input. However, I’ve often worked with families who have much more difficult OPOL (one parent – one language) circumstances.
The reality is that it’s a hard job being the minority-language parent, no matter what that language may be. But if the minority language is a lesser-spoken language, or if it is the language of a working parent, who naturally has less time to spend speaking to the children, the job becomes harder still. So, if you are the minority language parent, or you are a parent who works or travels a lot, should you give up your hope that your children will be fluent in your language? The answer of course, is “Of course not!”. But how do you make that work?
Take the example of a Russian-speaking mother, raising her children with her Dutch-speaking partner, in the Netherlands. How can this parent ensure enough Russian input, and also promote Russian as a useful language to her children? In this case, in the early years, Russian may be the children’s language of choice – it is the language spoken to them by their primary caregiver, all day, every day. Dad is there evenings and weekends with his Dutch, but the children are likely happy to use both languages at this point. But what happens when the children start childcare or school, and then are living in Dutch for the majority of their language-learning hours? Unfortunately, many children at this point go through a phase of only wanting to use the majority language (in this case, Dutch) and refusing to use the minority language. This is especially true if the minority language parent also speaks the majority language. So, what’s a parent to do? There are many small steps to take in attempting to maintain a minority language. Firstly, many parents take advantage of the existence of “Saturday schools” or “Sunday schools”, which bring together many families in the same situation, with the goal of teaching literacy in the minority language. While this is in theory a very good plan, the reality is that many of these schools use an old-fashioned pedagogy that does not inspire the students to want to learn the language but instead inspires resentment for having to be in school on the weekend. Although these weekend classes can be invaluable, especially for literacy in languages with different writing conventions, parents need to do more to encourage children to use a minority language.
A critical part of this process is to find your child’s currency – what are they really interested in? What will motivate them to use the minority language? For some children, this means a hobby that they can only access in the minority language, or creating a community of practice based on common interests, or even having certain resources (books, DVDs, computer games) only available in the minority language. The point is to continue to show the child that the minority language is a useful, living language, and they they need it to accomplish something that is important to them.
A second important element of increasing minority language use is to find other speakers of the language to participate in the children’s lives. If at all possible, parents should surround themselves with friends and household help that speak the minority language, and encourage them to speak to the children. This could be through formal childcare, but it can also be accomplished by hiring a minority-language speaking teenager to come and play with the children three times a week (or more!). Visits to family are invaluable, and should be undertaken as often as possible – it can be hard to motivate a child in Amsterdam to speak Russian, but that same child may bloom in Moscow.
The bottom line is that a minority-language parent has a hard job, and one that can not always be accomplished alone. Make sure you find other people to help you on your child’s language journey – it will be easier and more pleasant for all of you!

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4 thoughts on “OPOL: The minority language dilemma

  1. Hi there
    I’m the minority language speaking parent in our household. I only speak to my 19 month old daughter in Portuguese. Her father and everybody else in our circle speak English. Im finding it extremely hard to keep this up. I feel my daughter has less of a connection with me than her father. I feel isolated from her life discoverings and all that excitement of early age. Have any of you felt the same? I also would like to know what language should the minority language speaking parent speak in a group setting? And how long do you need to keep this up for until the language is “mastered” by the cild? Thank you!

    • Hi Cintia, It is very hard to be the minority speaking parent, especially when you are doing it alone. My first thought is that you should find a community of practice of other Portuguese speakers, for yourself and your daughter. I don’t know where you live or how possible this is, but I find that most of the time, if you can find at least a few other people who speak your language, it will help you maintain your motivation (and it would be nice for you to be able to use your strongest language as well!) and good for your daughter to hear other people speak Portuguese as well. Some families I know have had a lot of success in finding older people who are retired and looking for company, and are happy to have tea and play once or twice a week. A second point is that it’s most difficult now, when your daughter isn’t really speaking back to you. When she starts being more “conversational” it will be more natural to talk to her in Portuguese, at least in my experience this is true. Good luck, and let me know how you get on.

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