Before Vanessa started preschool a couple of months after she turned two, I often wondered how she was going to survive for four hours surrounded solely by English. I worried that others would think she had no manners because even though she already understood the concept of “gracias” and “por favor,” she knew nothing about “thanks” and “please.” I explained the situation to her teachers and they reassured me everything would be fine. You see, up until then, her life had only revolved around Spanish.
To be honest, before she was born, we didn’t really give much thought to what method we’d use to raise our daughter bilingual. I mean, both my husband and I knew we were going to speak to her only in Spanish because she’d learn English in school. The same method had worked in the past with my husband’s son who is now a bilingual teenager. Truth be told, I didn’t even know there was a name for the method we were using …
Minority Language at Home (mL@H)
When I started doing research for SpanglishBaby, I found out it’s called the Minority Language at Home or mL@H. This method is self-explanatory, but it’s important to point out that neither you nor your partner have to be native speakers of the minority language you’ll be using exclusively at home. In other words, as long as you are both fluent in the minority language, which in this country is anything other than English, this method will work for you.
I have a bilingual (Spanish/English) friend who lives in the Northeast and has been using this method with her children aged eight and nine from the beginning. They are bilingual alright, but it has been a difficult road since they live in an area with virtually no Hispanic community. This means that the only Spanish her kids get is at home from her, her husband, and the nanny. The result: even though her kids are bilingual, the truth is they speak English most of their waking hours. Her strategy has been to be as strict as possible about talking to them exclusively in Spanish. In fact, many times her kids will address her in English and she’ll respond by asking them to repeat it in Spanish.
One Parent, One Language (OPOL)
The most popular system in both Europe and Canada is the one in which one parent speaks one language and the other one speaks another. There are several combinations of this method. For example, each parent speaks his or her own native language, which is a minority language, and the majority language is learned outside the home. In this case, the child would grow up with three languages. Another option is that the father speaks the majority language and the mother the minority one. Based on absolutely no scientific evidence, but on my own observations of my daughter’s bilingual playgroup, it seems as if the latter example is the most common one.
Another friend of mine who has been using OPOL—although not exclusively—since her son was born two years ago, explains some of the problems she’s encountered with this method. “Ideally, I’d never speak to him in English, but for some reason, when my husband is home, I feel a little weird, as if I am excluding him from our conversation.” So, she ends up speaking in English. Actually, this is a very common worry and a subject of which we’ll write about in entries to come.
Time and Place (T&P)
This type of method is what’s most often used at schools with bilingual programs. For example, the minority language is used in the morning and the majority language in the afternoon. Or, like in the bilingual school I attended, some subjects—such as math or science—are in the minority language one school year and in the majority language the next. This strategy refers less to family life than the other two.
From what I gather, none of these methods seem to be fail-proof and although consistency is important, flexibility is even more so. Even if you start with one method, who’s to say that a few months down the road you realize another method might work better for your family or for your current situation?
It’s up to you whichever method you choose or comes naturally to your family, know that you can do a lot to promote early language learning with your kids through the activities you engage in. In the book The Bilingual Edge it is stressed over and over that language learning activities need to be:
1. Enjoyable and fun for all involved,
2. Fully integrated into everyday routines and interactions, and
3. Meaningful, interesting, and connected with real life.