#IMLD: When the Mother Tongue becomes a minority language: Changing your family plan

This post was inspired by a reader question, and fits well with the theme of the month, so I am putting my thoughts in a post.

This family is from the Middle East, and has Arabic and English as the two languages in their language plan. They began their family in the Middle East and chose the OPOL approach, with the mother speaking in Arabic and the father in English (he is also a fluent Arabic speaker). After a move to the US, the children now have much more exposure to English than Arabic. The family will move back to the Middle East in a few years time.

So, the question being posed is “When should you change your family language plan, and how should it be done?”

A Family Language Plan is a dynamic document, not one written in stone. We make a plan based on our language goals for our children, and the best means to reach those goals in our present situation. The OPOL method is ideal for families who want to transmit two languages to their children, and have the possibility to have one parent use each language. However, in some cases it is quite clear which is the “mother tongue”. For this family, the mother tongue is Arabic – the language of both parents and their greater community and culture. English is a great addition to their children’s languages, but the priority must remain with the home language.

Because the family is now living in an English-dominant environment, it is important to balance the input of the two languages as much as possible, which means increasing the amount of Arabic spoken. There are two ways to do this. The first is to adopt a  “Minority Language at Home” (MLaH) approach. Using this method, both parents will speak to the children in Arabic at home, and in English outside the home, leading to clear divisions of the two languages. This method is beneficial because it allows the children to hear more Arabic, but still use the community language outside the house (English). A more strict variation is that the parents speak Arabic all the time to the children, inside and outside the house, and the children learn English from the community (play school, preschool and then school).

Which path to take depends very much on the parents. My preference would be for the children to hear as much Arabic as possible, and to not feel that Arabic is something they can only use “in private”. However, I am very much aware that using other languages in public, especially languages linked to controversial topics, can be uncomfortable in some situations. It’s a terrible world we live in when people are judged by their Mother Tongue, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that this type of prejudice doesn’t exist. So, each family needs to decide what language use they are comfortable with in the community in which they live.

Once the decision has been made for a change of plan, the next questions is “how” to change. In this case, it’s quite a simple transition for Dad to start speaking in Arabic with the children as well. There needs to be a family language discussion; even young children should be a part of the discussion when the language use changes – even a simple “Daddy is going to start speaking to you the same way Mummy does.” is a good beginning with a young child. Slightly older children can be given a more complete explanation about language – “Because we want you to be able to use both your languages very well, and so we need to use more X language to help you with that.”.

It is also beneficial to seek out other speakers of the minority language – parents and children – to help reinforce the message that the minority language isn’t only for home. Particularly when living in an English-speaking culture with English as the second language, as the pull towards “English-only” is strong for young children.

By ensuring a better balance of input in the two languages, the children should grow in both languages, and be able to reintegrate into Arabic-speaking life when the family returns to their home country. And once again, when the language situation has changed, the family can change their plan and go back to the OPOL method with the mother continuing in Arabic and the father returning to using English. The children will be old enough at the time of this transition to understand clearly the change in language use, and the reasons, and will probably be keen to keep up their English, so it will hopefully be a smooth and easy transition.

I wish you all the best with your bilingualism journey with your children!

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