I recently had a conversation with someone who was interested in having support developing their family’s language strategy as well as advice in how to shape their language goals and plan for achieving them. During our discussion, they shared that the decision to get help in drawing up a Family Language Plan had been met with judgement, confusion and an overall lack of understanding from many of their (extended) family members and friends. A monolingual family member didn’t understand why they had chosen to raise their children bilingually in the first place, much less go into the “trouble” of crafting a language plan; some bilingual friends were rather puzzled, even making condescending remarks, about the family’s approach to bilingual childrearing. And, as much as what they shared didn’t come as a surprise, it made me realise (yet again) how little people know about bilingualism in development and bilingual childrearing.
Indeed, language learning is a natural process, but I simply can’t stop asking myself – How are parents supposed to manage two, three or more languages and achieve their goals without a personalised framework? How would caregivers deal with the issues when they arise (because they will!) in order to ensure that their objectives are met? Or recognise any red flags as they occur and know when and how to intervene and make adjustments? How would they be able to determine that something is wrong and get help? The answer to all these questions is simple – they need to learn about the basics of bilingual childrearing and craft a personalised Family Language Plan, which is the roadmap, the blueprint if you will, that is unique to every family’s little universe.
Language development is one of the central topics in parenting and for bilingual families, Family Language Planning is of paramount importance as it lays the foundation for all other language planning. There is a pressing need to preserve home languages and cultures, especially now, when the number of cross-cultural families and international mobility is on the rise like never before. And, of course, all that with the expectation that children will eventually be at least active users of all their languages, if not fully proficient. In fact, it is paradoxical that (extended) family and friends would expect a child to be fluent in all their languages, yet the notion of developing a personalised Family Language Plan seems nonsensical, excessive and, well, useless to them.
There are a lot of social, personal and environmental factors that directly affect the family unit, such as marriage/partner-related and child-rearing needs, challenges and expectations. They ultimately influence not only the choice and management of language approaches and methods but the day-to-day language use as well. Add a new host environment and multiple languages to the mix, and we might as well have created a recipe for a major disruption. Bringing up children with more than one language, especially in a foreign environment, could be very demanding and requires a lot of effort, consistency and flexibility to find the right balance for a family as it is almost always about more than “just” language. Therefore, by planning and creating a tailored family language strategy, a family can ensure that all the variables, specific to their unique situation, have been considered, calculated and evaluated.
Bilingual children grow up in different environments and each family’s language management style is dictated by their unique family traits and attributes. It is a balancing act between “external reality and internal states”. They are all significant to the language development and language use in the family and need to be considered carefully when setting language goals for the children and planning on how to achieve them. Some of the main factors that influence the family dynamic and hence – the language planning process – are:
- Lack of concrete direction / goals
We plan for everything that has to do with our children since before they are born – what supplies we need for the baby, when and how to start solids, daycare, playdates, school, sports and other extracurricular activities, so why leave language planning out of the equation?! As Prof. Elizabeth Lanza points out “Decisions about using more than one language in the family in one generation will affect generations to come“. And it is never too late to start – do it now by setting some goals.
- Parental proficiency in the languages spoken
- Failure to understand that each family language journey is unique
It is often the small details that make the biggest impact when crafting a Family Language Plan and, therefore, it is important to consider as many family characteristics as possible in order to find the most suitable solutions, while staying objective.
- Beliefs, ideologies and experiences
- Family structure where the family is currently located (nuclear vs. extended)
- (Language) support system and community
One thing is certain though – planning for bi-/multilingualism and creating a personalised Family Language Plan would help enhance family interactions, strengthen the family bond, while immensely supporting your child’s language development. Be proactive and start now. Get in touch with us and let’s walk this road together!
 Tannenbaum, M. (2012) ‘Family language policy as a form of coping or defence mechanism’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 33(1), February, p. 57
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