The Importance of Monolingual Situations for Bilingualism

I know, it sounds like a contradiction – how is monolingualism important for bilingualism? Well, one of the most pressing concerns that many bilingual or multilingual families face is how to get the children to use the minority language. Many parents I work with report that their child “understands everything I say in Spanish (or Italian, or Polish, or whichever language is the least used), but they never speak to me in Spanish!”. This is especially true of younger siblings, and school-aged children. And this is where monolingual situations are important.

If you are the minority language parent, and you also speak/understand the majority language (and even sometimes if you don’t), chances are that you have this problem. Children can be thrifty with their linguistic energies, and prefer to use the language that works with the most people. Personally, I’m not a fan of pretending not to understand when my kids speak to me in a different language than the one I want (but I know of people who use this tactic successfully). So, if you don’t want to say “I don’t understand” to get them to use the minority language, how can you encourage your children to actually use it?

“Monolingual situations” – this is what your children need. This means they need to spend time with people who speak the minority language, only (these people can pretend not to speak the majority language!). Your children need activities that only happen in the minority language. They need to be put in situations where they have no choice, if they want to communicate, but to use the minority language.

So, how do you set about finding these elusive minority language situations? The easiest way is to find other speakers of your language, and have “language play dates”, where everyone understands that the priority is to encourage the children to see the usefulness of the language, and experience a communicative need that can not be satisfied without using the minority language. This requires some discipline on the part of the parents, to ensure that they don’t “slip” into the majority language, and it may take some time for the children to adapt to the linguistic tone of the group.

Another technique that has been successful for families with young children is to introduce (in the home) monolingual resources. For example, a game that was bought in France must be played in French, no? (non?), or a puzzle bought in Poland must be puzzled in Polish. If you set up this dynamic in your home when your children are young (and gullible) it can be a useful technique for several years, eventually being replaced by monolingual books (and DVDs, and computer games…). As children get older, you need to find their personal currency – what do they want to do strongly enough that they will do it in the minority language if that is their only choice? For one family I worked with, this was a Pokemon card trading club – if the child wanted to belong to the club and trade cards, he had to do it in French (the minority language). Some careful thinking and planning are required, but the pay-off in terms of linguistic progress for the children can be great, and definitely worth it.

And finally, the best monolingual situation of all is, of course, time spent in a place where the minority language is the majority language. Many families I work with spend all their holidays in the home country of the minority-language parent, some families have two minority language parents and need to split their time between two places. And for some families, travel to the “home country” is not an option. So then, you try to bring your home country to you. A healthy Skype-relationship with family and friends can be helpful, but be aware that it may take your children some time to adapt to this form of communication. Telephone is harder for kids, but if it is your only option, then spend some time developing their “phone skills”. And of course, you can always fall back on TV – it isn’t designed to be interactive, but if the parent sits with the child and asks questions and discusses what is happening (dialogic listening) then you can use this as a language development tool.

It’s not always an easy task, to set up monolingual situations in a multilingual life, but the rewards in terms of language development are worth it, and integrating monolingual situations should be a part of any family language plan.

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10 thoughts on “The Importance of Monolingual Situations for Bilingualism

  1. Thanks for these great tips! We definitely struggle with getting the kids to use the minority language in the house (Italian). We haven’t set-up language playdates yet, but I think that needs to move up to the top of the list! Peer pressure can be a huge factor in getting kids to do anything, so perhaps I should use it more to get them to speak Italian. Thanks Eowyn!

  2. These really great tips work. I agree with NomadParents that peer pressure is very important for children and play dates are a brilliant idea. Unfortunately when we came to the NL we didn’t find italian speaking children who were a bit older than our son (at that time he was 2.5 and was looking for elder friends) and it took almost two years to find children he wanted to be with – not all the children who speak the same language want to play together only because they share the language…. Personally, I prefer play dates, personal contacts to TV, computer games etc. But if this is the only resource you can get, there are several sites for children to play, learn, listen and repeat (songs, rhymes etc.) from 3 years upwards. We have books, audio books and DVD’s in all the languages our children are exposed to and this really helped us a lot to keep even the passive competence high. For elder children I can only recommand to transmit them the passion for reading. If they like to read and read a lot, they will have less problems with spelling. – Great post! As always!

    • I completely agree that with older children, literacy, and love of reading, are both critical to language sustainability. Reading is a much richer language resource than TV, DVDs, computer games etc. Unfortunately, I’ve worked with many families with children who don’t like reading (I know, how is this possible?), so I think that other resources have their place as well.

  3. Of course, Eowyn, I also think that children with reading difficulties, reading is a huge issue. But also then, resoucres like TV and DVD have to be chosen with care. – Your post inspired me. I just published one in addition to yours about reading.

  4. A very good post, thanks for sharing. We live in Finland with French as our minority language, and are always looking for monolingual French situations for our children. In our family it’s not so much a question of having to motivate them to use the language anymore (but only because we have already done this for years: summers in France with grandparents, au pairs, etc.etc), but to give them access to “pure” French. My husband is a native French speaker, but after 18 years abroad there’s interference from his other languages. It’s not obvious, but he often has to search for words and expressions in French unlike a person who only speaks that language.

    • Welcome Annika! I was wondering about all the hits from Finland today. I’ve worked with families in the same situation as you are – the minority language parent needs “monolingual situations” too! I presume the French-speaking community in Finland is quite small?

      • Hi, yes I shared the article on my FB page and that probably created many hits :-). The French community in Helsinki where we live is not that small, there is a French school and a French-Finnish school (that our kids attend with about 800 other children). The problem is still just the same as with our kids, we need to actually plan to meet other French speakers or the days just go by. You’re so right, we parents also need monolingual situations!

  5. Where everyone understands that the priority is to encourage the children to see the usefulness of the language, and experience a communicative need that can not be satisfied without using the minority language. This requires some discipline on the part of the parents, to ensure that they don’t “slip” into the majority language, and it may take some time for the children to adapt to the linguistic tone of the group.

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